Pat Metheny: In sync with nature at Longwood Gardens

Posted: August 11, 2012

Nature itself seemed to respond to Pat Metheny's Unity Band at Longwood Gardens on Thursday evening. In part that was intentional, as when a line of red-lit fountains suddenly erupted behind the open-air stage during the guitarist's soaring final solo. But there was also an element of the serendipitous, as when flashes of distant lightning seemed to strobe the sky in time with Antonio Sanchez's thunderous drum solo. Not to mention Metheny's trademark mane, every bit as much a topiary feat as the towering hedges surrounding the stage.

The Unity Band, which recently released its self-titled debut, is the first time in 30 years that Metheny has admitted a saxophonist into the ranks of one of his ensembles. Chris Potter, one of his generation's most inventive saxmen, is a worthy successor to the greats that last held that honor, the late Michael Brecker and Dewey Redman. Throughout the set, largely culled from the new album, Potter and Metheny traded fluidly expressive solos, whether exploring the mercurial "Roofdogs" or the tender "This Belongs to You."

The quartet is completed by Sanchez, a flexible, powerhouse drummer who fills that role in nearly all of Metheny's ensembles these days, and Ben Williams, the young bassist who won the 2009 Thelonious Monk International Bass Competition. Williams is a strongly melodic player whose solos evinced a soulful, singing quality.

Despite the Unity name, Metheny divided and supplemented the band in a variety of ways throughout the show. He began alone onstage with his 42-string Pikasso guitar, playing a delicate, introspective solo that combined chamber elegance, harp-like flourishes, and percussive raps on the body of the instrument. After a half-dozen tunes with the band, he performed duos with each member, which provided some of the night's most memorable moments: a contrapuntal hurricane with Potter through the standard "All the Things You Are," a bluesy stroll with Williams, a percussive barrage with Sanchez.

He also brought along his musical hobby kit, the orchestrion, a mechanical symphony triggered by solenoids and pneumatics. Creating layered loops of guitar sounds with the gradually accruing elements of the robotic band, Metheny and the band conjured an impressive cacophony, though the clockwork, tin-soldier instrumentalists robbed their human counterparts of a good deal of their spontaneous vitality.

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