Review: Pat Metheny Unity Group

Francis Graham-Dixon reckons Pat Metheny's Unity Group will be talked about in years to come as one of his most interesting and adventurous outfits

Of all the extraordinary musical collaborations Pat Metheny has forged over many years, I feel certain that his latest incarnation will be talked about in years to come as one of the most interesting and adventurous. One of just two sadly rare UK dates in the Unity Group’s 2014 tour, this nearly three-hour unbroken set at the Eventim Apollo in Hammersmith was a triumphant celebration of spellbinding jazz which showcased his enduring importance as a composer of consummate originality and astonishing range and his rich expressiveness as a master instrumentalist. A standing ovation followed by four encores and four more ovations speaks for itself.

Never one to have stood still in his writing, Metheny is constantly reinventing himself musically and has always sought to bring an experimental wide sound palette to his performances and in his improvisation, yet no matter what he plays – his custom 42-string Pikasso guitar, hollow body guitar, 12-string or guitar synthesiser – there is always a compelling authenticity in his musicality. This essence was perhaps most revealed and at at its most personal in the four études or variations which he performed solo on stage; two of these were encores, where you could hear a pin drop.

Joining him on stage was a stellar line-up of virtuoso musicians – Chris Potter, hugely impressive on soprano and tenor saxophones, bass clarinet and flute, one of the truly exciting emerging young bassists, Ben Williams and the effervescent and inventive drummer and percussionist, Antonio Sanchez. They were joined for the second half by the excellent and understated Giulio Carmassi on synthesiser, piano, trumpet and vocals, adding further layers to the soundscape and introducing instruments – orchestra bells, marimba and other custom-fabricated acoustic mechanical instruments – heard on his 2010 Orchestrion project.

The synergy between all the soloists was breathtaking. Metheny played extended improvised duets with each in turn. These were very different in character and showcased the personality each brings to the group, illustrating the bandleader’s equal versatility in a solo or small group setting. Williams is a fitting heir to one of Metheny’s most memorable collaborators, Charlie Haden. The recent compositions develop a further layer of harmonic complexity with the inspired addition of Potter whose playing was a delight – powerful, articulate, urgently exploring the full range of dynamic possibilities – particularly on tenor – that the saxophone brings. Without the piano as a lead instrument so redolent with Metheny’s earlier groups, his decision to work with Potter extends Metheny’s musical possibilities.

This music has a harder edge than before yet retains a melodic and harmonic lyricism that makes the compositions inimitably Methenyesque without them ever becoming obvious in any way. The music focused on five selections from the band’s latest album, KIN (←→) (2014), and two from its first release in 2012. Revisiting older classics, James and Are You Going With Me? (Offramp, 1982), Dream Of The Return, Have You Heard (Letter from Home, 1989), and Bright Size Life (1976), only proved the timeless quality of so much of the earlier music and how well it sits with Metheny’s new direction of travel. Go and see this band!

Unity Group photographed by Jimmy Katz

Your Comments:

Posted by Johnny, 13 June 2014, 12:43 (1 of 7)

Excellent review. It was a very deep concert. Musically brave and beautiful with an extraordinary level of virtuosity. It was a great feeling to have been there.
Posted by jbl, 13 June 2014, 14:50 (2 of 7)

Great review. All his concerts are worth going to, I still miss Lyle Mays and I sincerly hope that one day we will them see back together again!
Posted by Sean Fenlon, 13 June 2014, 16:55 (3 of 7)

Just a minor naming-convention nit, but I believe the review is for The Pat Metheny Unity *Group*, which is technically different than The Pat Metheny Unity *Band* Here's a summary of the evolution of the Pat Metheny Band/Group naming convention:
Posted by Mark Gilbert, Editor, 13 June 2014, 22:51 (4 of 7)

Thank you, Sean - nomenclature duly corrected. For those who missed the error, we had referred throughout to the Pat Metheny Unity Band, though in some defence the Jimmy Katz photo used here - with, I believe, the same lineup as at the gig - was titled "Pat Metheny Unity Band".
Posted by Peter, 14 June 2014, 18:52 (5 of 7)

I went to my first PMG gig 32 years ago at Hammersmith and was there for this concert. I have loved his music ever since. However, while his playing is always excellent, he hasn't written a good piece for a while. I played 'On Day One' to two friends separately and they both thought it was 'First Circle'. The texture of the sound is not right with the sax;without Lyle Mays; and without the singers: 'Are You going with Me' was a shadow of the original with Lyle Mays; 'Have You Heard' was good but nothing like the choral version; and why do a MEDLEY of his songs on the acoustic? The orchestrion was a novel idea, but has run its course. The last thing I really liked was his two albums/tours with Brad Mehldau - too much output Pat - 'What's it all About' was an aberration which did nothing for some lovely pop songs It's Lyle's fault, because I imagine he doesn't want to get together to co-compose and tour so much. After all that, I still love Pat Metheny's music !
Posted by Frank Johnson, 15 June 2014, 18:49 (6 of 7)

Sorry Peter but you're wrong The days of Lyle Mays and the singers are now a distant memory and he has moved on. Although I was not a huge fan of the the first Unity Band album (a quartet without a piano is missing something) Kin is something else and the gig at Hammersmith is probably the best Pat Metheny gig I've ever seen.
Posted by Jon, 19 June 2014, 21:23 (7 of 7)

It was a great concert and it is great art but I found it also a little uneven. A strange mix of encores and always following a quiet song with bombast is a little predictable. When your all time favourite records are Still Life Talking and Letter from Home it's hard not to lament the passing of time since a PMG tour featuring Lyle and Steve but I also appreciate that things change. For me the The Way Up gig at Hammersmith was far more rewarding than the Unity Band Gig or Orchestrion. I also miss the singing so it was nice to hear a song at this recent gig.
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