Pat Metheny Unity Group at Ann Arbor’s Michigan Theater

On Monday evening I was fortunate enough to see Pat Metheny‘s Unity Group at Ann Arbor’s Michigan Theater. I had originally waffled on whether or not to attend for various personal reasons – none of which were a lack of interest – but a last-minute invitation from my new friend (and longtime fellow tweeter) Mark Jacobson kept me from missing out on a top notch performance. (Thank you again, Mark!)

I’ve been a fan of Metheny’s for a number of years but I’m by no means a completist. (Although, everything I have of his I quite like.) His current ensemble, the Pat Metheny Unity Group, is the quintet incarnation of the four-piece Pat Metheny Unity Band, which I saw at the 2012 Detroit Jazz Festival. The Band consists of Metheny, saxophonist Chris Potter, bassist (and fellow Spartan) Ben Williams, and drummer Antonio Sanchez, with the Group adding multi-instrumentalist and vocalist Giulio Carmassi. 2012’s self-titled Pat Metheny Unity Band is a really solid and often hard-driving jazz quartet album, including a little orchestrion treatment here and there. The Group, however, which just released Kin, explores vastly more sonic terrain. What was a quartet is now a five-piece orchestra, with the orchestrion regularly and tastefully integrated, and Carmassi providing varying instruments and textures. (Full disclosure: I hadn’t yet picked up Kin despite my intending to, but I surely will after seeing Monday’s show.)

The Michigan Theater’s vibe had more in common with a rock show than jazz, between the orchestrion-adorned stage and Metheny’s ecstatic fans. Kicking off Monday’s 2h45m set was, as Metheny described, an “opening set” of just the quartet, which features Band tunes “Come and See,” “Roofdogs,” and “New Year.” Don’t let the “diminished” forces fool you, though, as it’s a burning quartet. Potter and Metheny are intense, melodic powerhouses, with Williams and Sanchez providing and nimble but deep and grooving pocket. After about 40 minutes, Metheny addressed the audience and welcomed Carmassi (on piano, vocals, and percussion) to the stage, at which point the Group launched Michigan Theater deep into the sonic cosmos for two hours of exploratory, psychadelic, and at times face-melting jams that transcended genre. The set largely featured material from the new album, and the quintet almost sounded like a completely different ensemble from the quartet. Kin‘s tunes are compositionally more complex than its predecessor (which featured a more “traditional” jazz approach of head-solo-head, etc.), with each piece traversing various themes and textures. Later on in the set, Metheny featured each of his sidemen via an extended duet. His show-stopping and jaw-dropping rendition of Trane’s “Countdown” with Chris Potter was one of the night’s highlights. Like the original Coltrane recording, they waited until the very end to tease the melody, with the preceding minutes causing this saxophonist – and likely all other musicians in attendance – to question his existence and purpose. The Group ended end their main set with a rockin’ “Have You Heard” (sounding great with the added saxophone) followed by a full-band encore “Are You Going With Me” and a solo acoustic encore of an improvised medley of various tunes including “Last Train Home.”

I may not be a Metheny expert, but I’m familiar with his various projects over the years. And, from what I do know, the current PMUG is a near ideal synthesis of Metheny’s catalogue. It not only features new compositions that can be held up to its predecessors, but the band’s intense live sound also includes hints of Pat Metheny Group (especially with the use of voice – one of my favorite Metheny qualities, actually – and thick orchestration) and the Orchestrion Project (though tastefully used as a means and not an end). Shame on me for almost missing out on such a tremendous show. If the Group ends up in your neck of the woods during this year’s mammoth tour, I highly recommend attending. Not to be missed.

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