Music

Pat Metheny: Unity Band

The jazz guitarist touches all his many bases with an all-star band.


Pat Metheny

Unity Band

Label: Nonesuch
US Release Date: 2012-06-12
UK Release Date: 2012-06-11
Amazon
iTunes

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.

6

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less

The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

Keep reading... Show less
Culture

Net Neutrality and the Music Ecosystem: Defending the Last Mile

Still from Whiplash (2014) (Photo by Daniel McFadden - © Courtesy of Sundance Institute) (IMDB)

"...when the history books get written about this era, they'll show that the music community recognized the potential impacts and were strong leaders." An interview with Kevin Erickson of Future of Music Coalition.

Last week, the musician Phil Elverum, a.k.a. Mount Eerie, celebrated the fact that his album A Crow Looked at Me had been ranked #3 on the New York Times' Best of 2017 list. You might expect that high praise from the prestigious newspaper would result in a significant spike in album sales. In a tweet, Elverum divulged that since making the list, he'd sold…six. Six copies.

Keep reading... Show less

Under the lens of cultural and historical context, as well as understanding the reflective nature of popular culture, it's hard not to read this film as a cautionary tale about the limitations of isolationism.

I recently spoke to a class full of students about Plato's "Allegory of the Cave". Actually, I mentioned Plato's "Allegory of the Cave" by prefacing that I understood the likelihood that no one had read it. Fortunately, two students had, which brought mild temporary relief. In an effort to close the gap of understanding (perhaps more a canyon or uncanny valley) I made the popular quick comparison between Plato's often cited work and the Wachowski siblings' cinema spectacle, The Matrix. What I didn't anticipate in that moment was complete and utter dissociation observable in collective wide-eyed stares. Example by comparison lost. Not a single student in a class of undergraduates had partaken of The Matrix in all its Dystopic future shock and CGI kung fu technobabble philosophy. My muted response in that moment: Whoa!

Keep reading... Show less
Books

'The Art of Confession' Ties Together Threads of Performance

Allen Ginsberg and Robert Lowell at St. Mark's Church in New York City, 23 February 1977

Scholar Christopher Grobe crafts a series of individually satisfying case studies, then shows the strong threads between confessional poetry, performance art, and reality television, with stops along the way.

Tracing a thread from Robert Lowell to reality TV seems like an ominous task, and it is one that Christopher Grobe tackles by laying out several intertwining threads. The history of an idea, like confession, is only linear when we want to create a sensible structure, the "one damn thing after the next" that is the standing critique of creating historical accounts. The organization Grobe employs helps sensemaking.

Keep reading... Show less
9
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image