Pat Metheny’s ongoing swoop between the blatantly sentimental and the keenly aggressive has long charmed certain parts of his audience. Music generalists tend to swoon for the winsome fantasias the guitarist’s electro-acoustic outfits have created during the last four decades. Jazz fans with a deeper sense of scrutiny are often more engaged by his overtly swinging work, which puts his terrific improv skills up front. Of course, some listeners have a yen for each of Metheny’s myriad approaches. They’re the ones who will embrace this double-disc live set. Moving from serenity to turmoil, it’s custom built to tickle anyone who appreciates the 61-year-old bandleader’s scope.
Making its recorded debut in 2012, the Unity Band proved its versatility from the start. Adept at pushing muso buttons while stretching its emotions towards the cloying side, it nonetheless has a way of wringing epic excursions from balmy melodies and prog-informed interplay. During the last four decades, Metheny the composer has shown us his prowess at placing a bittersweet vibe in a few of his most eloquent tunes. But they’re made a bit richer, and certainly more distinct, by being flecked with other hues as well. From moment to moment, this new album’s “Sign of the Season” morphs from light-hearted melancholy to a pensive elation. That makes it somewhat unsettling and rather attractive. During this in-studio concert, taken from a feisty performance that has been previously released in DVD form, each band member has a role in enhancing the steady shift of moods.
As an instrumentalist Metheny is expert at bolstering the ethereal. “Come and See” starts with his harp-like Picasso guitar and lets saxophonist Chris Potter roam a bit on bass clarinet. When the engine of bassist Ben Williams and drummer Antonio Sanchez drops in, we find that it’s a vamp tune with a twist. Each soloist bends it a bit, and from the guitarist’s liquid pronouncements to the horn player’s animation (Potter is supple yet vigorous at every turn on this album) the performance seems to jet along while somehow floating. The comparatively aggressive “Two Folksongs” does something similar (and did so when Michael Brecker recorded it with Metheny on the latter’s terrific ‘80/81’). Though it glows with the leader’s acoustic strumming, it burns with the band’s rambunctious interplay.
Metheny’s music sounds earthier with a reed player in the band. Potter brings a gravitas to the inherent dolor of “Born” and reminds us of the joy in tearing shit apart on “Roof Dogs” and “Rise Up.” For a full two minutes, the group also rips through the fractious “Geneology,” which might be a pithy postcard pointing to the way Ornette Coleman influenced the guitarist early on (the band also bounces through Patnette’s “Police People” from their near-perfect 1985 outing, Song X). Potter’s fluency positions him nicely for almost anything. His duet romp with the leader on “Cherokee” is a hot snapshot of his blowing skills, the spot on this record where he and Metheny sound like they’re having the most fun. Ultimately the saxophonist is as convincing on a freak-out as he is during the music’s most genteel passages.
And indeed there are several tender moments on The Unity Sessions. One of the most enchanting pieces is Metheny’s acoustic recital through a medley of past themes. Thirteen years ago he dropped ‘One Quiet Night,’ a boomer’s valentine to pop radio; it reminded doubters just how expressive he can be on his own. Here he ambles through seven originals before subsiding with a “Last Train Home” that puts a lump in your throat. It’s the direct opposite of “Go Get It,” the program’s closing track and an ornery rampage that suggests this adamant experimentalist won’t be abandoning the aggressive stuff any time soon. The distance between the two items is sizable, but as that signature shock of hair hits its graying phase of life, Metheny‘s vision becomes more and more commanding. It’s now powerful enough to make opposites feel like part of a whole. Unity, no matter how you slice it.