During the concert, Metheny remarked that it’s been 25 years since the group recorded their first album, “Watercolors.” Their latest album, “Speaking of Now,” just recently released on Warner Bros., continues to showcase the band’s unique, electronic conception of jazz.
Two years ago, I saw Metheny perform at the Calvin with bassist Larry Grenadier and drummer Bill Stewart, in what was a superb trio concert with great soloing and cohesiveness. This performance with the larger, more orchestrated group was a wholly different, yet equally satisfying, experience.
While most everyone who knows Metheny’s playing agrees on his prowess as a guitar player, most jazz purists tend to shy away from Metheny’s group efforts and lean more towards his trio outings. In the trio setting, Metheny more often plays jazz standards rather than his own compositions. The trio format also focuses more on the soloing and the interaction between the musicians. Although the music that the Group performs is more orchestrated and planned out than the straight-ahead trio jazz, improvisation still remains the core of the Group’s music.
And Metheny is a brilliant soloist. Backed by a superb ensemble, including pianist Lyle Mays, with whom Metheny has collaborated since the Group’s inception, Metheny treated the enthusiastic audience at the Calvin to some fiery, extended improvisations. His take on Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “How Insensitive” stood out for its strong melodic and rhythmic qualities. Mays, who arranges most of the music for the band, also showed his skill as a soloist, most notably in a beautiful duet piece he did with Metheny towards the end of the performance.
Metheny’s other band members include the Group’s longtime bassist Steve Rodby and three newcomers to the ensemble. Antonio Sanchez’s propulsive drumming sustained the Group, while Cuong Vu’s trumpet and vocals offered nice variety and fullness to the overall sound.
Most impressive of the new members was Richard Bona, whose primary function in the Group is as vocalist. Yet, Bona, during the course of the night, also played the guitar, a whole number of percussion instruments and the electric bass.
A definite highlight, and my favorite moment, of the concert was the Group’s tribute to the late Jaco Pastorius, the most influential electric bassist in jazz history. Pastorius was the bass player on Metheny’s first album, “Bright Size Life,” and was also a good friend of Metheny’s. For this tribute, Bona, who had been singing and playing percussion thus far, brought out his electric bass and launched into an impressive take on Pastorius’ “Continuum,” replete with the harmonics that made Jaco’s sound so distinctive. “Bright Size Life,” which followed, elicited applause from the audience at the very start of the piece; it is a favorite among Metheny fans.
The dynamism of the music really struck me as an outstanding feature of this performance. Midway through the concert, Metheny played, as a trio piece, one of his most melodic compositions, “Farmer’s Trust.” The subtle and quiet melody from Metheny’s acoustic guitar held the audience transfixed. In stark contrast to that subdued melody, Metheny, switching to one of his many electric guitars, followed with a riotous, dissonant piece. As a further contrast, Bona’s vocals in the following tune had tinges of Portuguese and African chanting.
This concert, more so than any other jazz concert I’ve seen, was really something of a spectacle. Elaborate lighting effects were integrated into the performance and it was extraordinary to see Metheny playing one guitar with another one slung over his back. Further adding to this spectacle was Metheny’s outrageous 42-string guitar. Yes, that’s correct, 42 strings. This guitar is a work of art, with three string heads and a harp-like portion all molded into one exceedingly difficult instrument to play.
At times during the show I thought of all the intricate lighting, the complex technical setup and the 42 strings as a bit excessive or as detracting from the music, but, in the end, it all made sense. The Group integrated its myriad instruments and technical effects beautifully. None of it distracted from the essential focus, the musicians or their collective sound.
This was one of the most dynamic concerts I have ever seen. Metheny managed to diversify the playing enough to sustain a performance that lasted nearly three and a half hours. Though the album, as is often the case, lacks much of the fire and diversity of playing heard at the concert, the Group’s performance this past Wednesday is strong proof that after 25 years, they can still play with freshness and vitality.