Pat Metheny Unity Band, Hammersmith Apollo, London – review

Pat Metheny opened this three-hour marathon unaccompanied, playing a concerto-like epic on his four-neck Pikasso guitar, and ended it as a solitary figure on acoustic guitar, gently elaborating The Beatles’ “And I Love Her” for a fourth encore. Along the way, he strummed and picked and switched guitars, moved from harp-like ripples to fluent pure-toned jazz and from zitherish shimmers to grungy rock as well as sporadically triggering the various parts of a stripped-down but still sizeable orchestrion.

The centrepiece, though, was neither Metheny’s fluency on guitar nor his technological wizardry, but the core jazz skills of the Unity Band – formed by Metheny two years ago – and the music that he had composed for them to play.

As Metheny’s opening epic faded to a shimmer, the Unity Band emerged with the bass clarinet rumination of “Come and See”, zipped into “Roofdogs” and dipped into Metheny’s more trenchant back catalogue – including tracks from the albums 80/81 and Song X, a 1986 collaboration with Ornette Coleman. And even a slightly muddy sound couldn’t mask the muscular, acerbic fluency of Chris Potter’s saxophone rampaging over a tight-knit rhythm section.

The second half featured the expanded Unity Group. The smouldering solos and showcases of the original quartet remained, but the multilayered textures of Giulio Carmassi’s keyboards and occasional bits of orchestrion gave Metheny’s themes and structures a symphonic dimension. And a much-improved sound brought out the detail of Antonio Sánchez’s rhythmic chatter on drums and the percussive edge to Ben Williams’ bass.

The Unity Group recently released the album Kin, and it was this artfully structured music that introduced the second half of Metheny’s near-continuous set. But free jazz and calypso, twisty fusion and Southern soul were also in the mix, and merged impressively into coherence.

Towards the end, Metheny played an extended duet with each band member. Williams soothed with liquid bass and Potter tore up Sonny Rollins’ “Tune Up”; Carmassi played trumpet and sang in a lovely high tenor and drummer Sánchez belted out grungy rock. Metheny matched them note for note and beamed with pleasure. And so he should. He has assembled a knockout band, and given them a platform to excel.

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