Guitarist Pat Metheny is, arguably, the biggest “star” in jazz since 1980. He has led popular bands that, by jazz standards, have sold many records. He has won Grammys. He has pioneered the use of a guitar-synth. He was signed to major labels and he has played in all-star groups and at festivals.
But Metheny is still a jazz player even if he’s a star, and he’s never shied away from being “serious” like a jazz musician should be: recording standards, collaborating with other heavy-hitter jazz players, making more sober records, and even stretching himself considerably by playing more avant-garde music, as well as classical music. In a real sense, Metheny has tried to be the EveryJazzMan—becoming a little bit of everything to every listener. And, darn it, the guy is very good, so it works more often than not.
The latest from Metheny is an all-star group called the Unity Ban. And one suspects that this name comes partly from the leader’s own desire to unify the various sides of his musical personality. Rather than release another album that plays to one of his many (and somewhat disparate) musical personalities, Metheny has gathered a band that can play in several different bags on different tracks. It’s a great band—Chris Potter on reeds, Ben Williams on bass, and Antonio Sanchez on drums—and so it’s more than capable. But the recording itself is, not surprisingly, all over the place, a Whitman’s sampler of Metheny himself.
So, for example, folks who enjoy the more serious/sensitive Metheny will love “This Belongs To You”, a relatively tempoless rhapsody on which the leader’s acoustic guitar blends melodically with Potter’s tenor on the flowing, searching melody. Metheny gets a stinging beauty from his acoustic on a lovely solo, with Sanchez coloring it all with great care. But the very next tune, “Leaving Town”, will delight pop-loving fans of the semi-smooth Pat Metheny Band because of the heaping dose of twisting melody it serves up over a grooving pulse. Here, Metheny is playing his familiar electric guitar in a pleasing style, only to set up a Potter solo that other Metheny fans will find reminiscent of the playing of Michael Brecker on the early 80/81 album.
The variety goes on. “Roofdogs” revives Metheny’s robot-voiced guitar-synth on both the melody statement and a long, expressive solo that purposefully sounds similar to what Potter plays on soprano saxophone. Then “Come and See” gives Metheny the chance to play his harp-like “Picasso” guitar while Potter gets moody on bass clarinet. And in the biggest departure of all, “Signals” combines the band with Metheny’s work with his Orchestrion gizmo in which he is able to program a series of bells and percussion and other sounds to interact with his playing, creating a unique music box sound that comes from the most distinct of his recent albums.
Amidst all this, of course, there is great playing. “New Year” pulses with a Latin groove that fits beautifully with acoustic guitar and lifts Potter to lovely heights. And the closer, “Breakdealer”, seems like a perfect vehicle for a band that just needs some tricky material to test its chops and give it something on which to really blow.
But great playing does not necessarily make a great record. And Unity Band is not a great record in large part because it moves about with such restlessness.
Inside this disc, however, there is a great record quietly pushing its way out. “Then and Now”, for example, is a tender theme that ought not to have been shoved aside so easily by all that orchestrion-ing and guitar-synth-yelling. It lopes along with beauty and subtlety, letting in a singing bass solo by Williams that the record could stand to have more room for. And there is “Interval Waltz”, which sets up Potter’s tenor in the perfect part of his range and then asks him to play a melody based (of course) on several tricky intervals. The shape of the tune builds to a calm climax to launch Metheny’s most magical solo of the set.
I don’t want to make it seem as if I’m marking Unity Band down for not having a unified sound. Metheny has every right to try to bring together several of his personal tropes into a successful, “unified” sound. But few of these individual tracks unify things much, and the listener is left with a series of performances that heave about—dots that do not connect to form a single picture. Maybe this is partly a technology problem: as Metheny has experimented with different instruments and technologies, he has found it ever harder to know how his various selves can speak to each other, like computers using different operating systems.
For this listener, the good stuff sounds great and the other stuff just won’t get out of my ears’ way as I listen to Unity Band. In fact, what I want to do is simply cut certain tracks out of this thing to create the album I really want to listen to. And computers allow me to do exactly that. But that can hardly have been Metheny’s intention.
This, perhaps, is simply the price of stardom. Tom Cruise and Bruce Willis usually play action heroes, and that’s what most people want. But then Cruise will make Magnolia or Willis will appear in Moonrise Kingdom to stretch and to demonstrate all that a star can really do. But making a movie where the star both foils a terrorist plot and plays quirkily against type in self-deprecating style? That would be a feat.
Unity Band is rich in great playing, but it is not sure what it wants to be. Carrying too much weight for a single album, this Metheny disc is both too much and too little.
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