Pat Metheny Trio, Orpheum Theatre, Phoenix, AZ 3/1
This year marks the thirtieth anniversary of the Pat Metheny Group as an entity and a self-titled debut album. The classic recording featured killer collaboration between the great jazz guitarist and bassist Mark Egan, drummer Dan Gottlieb and keyboardist Lyle Mays. Since then, Metheny has played in a variety of formations from solo to quartet and always with a unique balance between traditional and post-modern jazz, beautiful melodies, freeform explorations and 100% guitar hero theatrics.
All of that heady hyperbole occurred at the Orpheum as an engaged, receptive and jovial Phoenix crowd greeted each peak by Metheny on a variety of famous and exotic guitars, Christian McBride on standup acoustic bass and Antonio Sanchez on drums. There were plenty of highlights as Metheny began the set with “Make Peace” on solo baritone guitar which is built in such a way that the acoustic strings sound more like a cross between a bass guitar and a low end lead instrument. He switched to a more traditional acoustic for Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “How Insensitive”a loose but very controlled and masterly played section of improvisation based upon the first song that made him pick up guitar “after “The Girl from Ipanema,” he quipped (a bossa nova classic that became a hit for Getz/Gilberto in the mid 1960s and is a pure chestnut slice of sublime lounge music that also sits on a shelf in its original LP format in our home).
“The Sound of Water” followed and Metheny strapped on his Pikasso I-a 42-string guitar which features three different guitars and a harp built onto the body almost as if one looked at a dulcimer and cracked, “Oh, I can approve on that one.” The massive guitarmade by Canadian Linda Manzer and in Metheny’s arsenal for quite a whileinitially, can be a bit distracting but once the eyes were stolen away by the sonic pool of waterliterally, in this song’s caseas the guitarist plucked out a melody with fingers, pick and a loud-to-soft strum of the harp strings then one got away from just viewing the monolithic object and allowed a classic musical story to unfold.
The solo artist became a trio on the fourth number as McBride from Philadelphia entered the stage laying a creatively solid foundation on bass throughout the evening while Sanchez from Mexico City redefined the modulating volume of a drum kit and cymbals. He consistently and tastefully toyed with the beat in fine counterpoint to Metheny. Oddly enough, the trio’s new studio album, Day Trip, a fine display of modern jazz and improvisatory explorations, doesn’t quite capture their strong chemistry as well as the live setting. To be honest, in a genre such as a jazz, which is so reliant on an audience for its complicated communication between performers, one would hope that the stage would best the studio. It did by several lengths at the Orpheum with Metheny as a very gifted bandleader and as a man humble enough to know that his mates play quite well, too.
The trio offered several remarkable versions from the new releaseincluding the title track, “Let’s Move” with McBride a standout on bass, and “Is This America?” Metheny’s reaction to the horrors of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 with McBride applying a bow to his acoustic bass with sweet effect to the touching melody offered by Metheny. However, none of these solid offerings could match “When We Were Free,” with Sanchez’s best drum work of the night as he slid up and down the tempo while playing his kit almost like a lead guitar instrumentcascading and hesitating licks followed by power chords accentuated by layers of cymbal shots. Impressive, indeed. Methney followed in what can only be best described as a Master’s Course in Guitar Wizardry or a genuine wail fest as the band delivered about ten minutes of molten heaviness in an epic avant-garde display of virtuosity segueing into a gorgeous ambient jazz coda.
Speaking of whales, the guitarist was also able to play such notes of beauty that often during the final moments of a song, one was hard-pressed to think of a defining word that would best express the subtle nuance. During one number, he lightly scratched the strings to evoke mood while in another, Metheny shot notes arcing into the air that reminded one of an ancient whale song. Hard to describe but very easy to enjoy and it is that particular sensationa combination of the Great Unknown where language is no longer appropriate and a cosmic sheet of soundsthat feels just right in describing the best work of the latest Metheny collaboration. A work in progress, no doubt but with the artfully adventurous duo of McBride and Sanchez also on board, one knows it is vital work.