Pat Metheny is a tireless musician. Anyone who doesn’t give him an “A” for effort is too tough a grader. More than that, he has incredible range. While some only know the relatively “smooth” Metheny of the Pat Metheny Group records, this guitarist has done just about everything in jazz, from jazz pop, yes, to acoustic ballads to Ornette Coleman tunes to serious noise experiments.
Recently, Metheny has been of many minds. Often at once. His experiments with mechanical orchestras triggered by solenoid technology have been fascinating, and he returned in 2012 to recording with a saxophone player — the superb Chris Potter in his “Unity Band”.
2014 finds Metheny blurring the lines of these recent efforts by expanding the Unity Group to include not only Potter, bassist Ben Williams, and drummer Antonio Sanchez, but also the multi-instrumentalist Giullio Carmassi. Moreover, the band uses some of the leader’s orchestrion technology, creating a sound for this new band that is more lush and textured than the 2012 outing.
Here’s what you know you’re going to get in a Metheny production: fluid melodies, soaring playing, and lots of drama. With Antonio Sanchez, there will be no shortage of rhythmic excitement. Williams is the definition of solid, and Potter brings a steely and majestic improviser who will be just as fluid as the leader. The wild card here, then, is likely to be Carmassi, who appears on piano, horns, percussion, and vocals. Wild.
The problem with the first “Unity Band” album was that it was all over the place, with tracks that didn’t sound much alike or share a sensibility: guitar synth here, orchestrion there, Latin groove on the left, ballad on the right. And this problem seems solved by the way Kin makes the band sound bigger and more uniformly textured. So, the first four tunes (all but one are epics that go 10 minutes or more) all have roughly the same set of sounds and textures: layers of guitar and piano, throbbing and solid bass, Sanchez’s dancing cymbals, saxophone that keens and launches high into the sky. Only one (“Adagio”, understandably) does not have a skittering rhythm that keeps your pulse racing or several sections that rise, one after the other, to a thrilling climax. Most play out like multi-part suites, with contrasting sections and thrilling themes.
The title track follows a similar profile, adding one of Metheny’s synth-guitar solos. I still don’t much like part of Metheny’s trick bag, but that’s just personal — the playing is excellent.
Things get genuinely interesting and a bit different with the next tune, “Born”. It’s a slow pop ballad with a melody played in Metheny’s lower range, with the band setting up a very beautiful and simple backing that rides on the strength of Williams’ woody low notes and a hum of keyboard that ought to sound cheesy but is, instead, a shimmer of beauty. When Potter enters to play a restrained tenor solo, things get more dramatic, and when the guitar and saxophone come together at the end on the melody, it’s a feeling of completion and satisfaction. I love this track.
“We Go On” is not so great. It’s a piece of instrumental rhythm-and-blues that trades in some cheesy space-synth sounds and a melody that isn’t up to Metheny’s usual standards of ingeniousness. I don’t know if it’s Carmassi we should blame here for the keyboard sounds, but this is a strange cut. A little bit Yellowjackets-Spyro Gyra, not enough edge. Three minutes in and the melody is still unfolding, dripping in cheese. I’d defy anyone to play this track for a Metheny fan and have that fan really be sure that it was their guy. They shouldn’t want it to be.
“KQU” is the tune that closes Kin, and it starts as the simplest thing on the disc: just the original quartet of Metheny, Williams, Potter, and Sanchez, playing a winding melody in unison against a minimal background from the rhythm section. On the bridge, Carmassi is gently in, playing some harmonic textures, then Metheny has some acoustic guitar behind his electric solo, but the song never really expands outward into some full-blown act of grandiose joy. Instead, it’s the better kind of joy: something that feels big in a real way, something you hold close to your chest because it’s precious. By the end, Potter is playing the melody as Metheny still improvises, and it all ends somewhat unresolved.
Does this suggest that Metheny’s “Unity” idea is still ongoing, another chapter to come? That would be a good thing. Even though this second installment is in some ways more generic, less quirky, it has a unity of purpose that the first disc lacked. This band is too talented to sound cheesy (except on “We Go On”), and Metheny is too sharp a leader not to take advantage of the players’ individual strengths. Potter gets to play sensual and steely at once, Sanchez always has something dancing to play, and Williams has interesting harmonies to outline.
The verdict on Carmassi? He seems mostly unobtrusive here. His wordless vocals on couple of tracks give this band the shimmer of “The Pat Metheny Band” of a decade ago, and in other ways he just seems to caulking up the edges of the music — it sounds a bit neater but not really turning it to gunk. He works out just fine.
So the “Unity Group”, this time around, finally sounds mostly unified. And that’s a good thing.