Freedom from stylistic constraints has never been an easy thing for Pat Metheny. As one of jazz’s greatest composers, guitarists and texturalists, he’s compiled on a stockpile of characteristic compositional devices. Any Metheny fan can identify his white-noise-spewing guitar synths and Ornette-style “out” constructions from 40 paces. But Metheny’s tools never become clichÃ©s; they’re just steps from which he keeps climbing.
Unity Band is yet another example of Metheny’s perpetual growth spurt. Metheny’s first record to feature a tenor saxophonist since the mighty 80/81 (with Dewey Redman and Michael Brecker), it sounds both familiar and fresh. Metheny sandblasts new creative paths through well-worn terrain, joined by tenor player Chris Potter, perennial Pat Metheny Group drummer Antonio Sanchez and inspired young bassist Ben Williams. Potter is a muscular foil for Metheny, inspiring him to comp and solo with abandon. The guitarist, though typically brilliant, can sometimes sound hamstrung by his dense PMG studio arrangements. But revamping his afore-mentioned compositional tools through new band mates, Metheny sounds truly inspired on Unity Band.
Metheny’s bittersweet acoustic guitar (is there a better acoustic jazz guitarist?) opens “New Year” with a bossa nova lilt, quickly drawing you in. Metheny is soon subsumed by Potter’s astringent tenor, followed by group solos over a Metheny-trademarked, high-flying vamp section. Fret-encompassing swoops (“vroom vroom”) and guitar synth caterwaul infuse the funky Latin sashay of “Roofdogs,” the band firing smoke and sparks as Potter’s soprano sax solo winds through solar flare like explosions. Here on soprano, and elsewhere on bass clarinet, Potter shakes clean his hefty Brecker influences to improvise with originality. Sanchez storms Unity Band as well, constantly stoking the intensity level as Williams responds with graceful solos and empathetic support. His solo bass introduction (another Metheny device) to “Come and See” leads to heated solos all around over a feverish pulse. An acoustic guitar-driven ballad, “This Belongs to You,” follows, then “Leaving Town,” which touches on old PMG favorite “James” in its melody and overall shape. The bell-like chord structure of “Interval Waltz” recalls master guitarist Jim Hall, creating a lovely arc of an arrangement, leading to a beautiful guitar solo over a floating swing pulse. “Signals (Orchestrion Sketch)” is like nothing on any Metheny record, its clattering, Frank Zappa styled (Varese? Stravinksy?) orchestral bed emoting like humorous robots beating street percussion. “Then and Now” sounds a bit like Weather Report’s “A Remark You Made” in spirit, followed by closer, “Breakdealer,” which with its clunky race to the finish, is Unity Band’s only deal-breaker.
Should Pat Metheny replace his main group with the freshly minted Unity Band? The guitarist is re-inspired by material that hints at years of development to come, and this is one killer band. But probably not. Metheny’s vision is too broad to be contained by one band and one band alone.