Jazz CD Reviews

Pat Metheny Unity Group: Kin (←→) – Nonesuch

The best selling, innovative, Grammy-winning jazz musician redefines himself and his music—again.

Published on February 6, 2014

Pat Metheny Unity Group: Kin (←→) – Nonesuch

Pat Metheny Unity Group: Kin (←→) [TrackList follows] – Nonesuch 536354-2, 70:33 (2/4/14) *****:

(Pat Metheny – electric and acoustic guitars, guitar synth, electronics, Orchestrions, synths; Chris Potter – tenor saxophone, bass clarinet, soprano saxophone, clarinet, alto flute, bass flute; Antonio Sanchez – drums, cajón; Ben Williams – acoustic and electric basses; Giuilio Carmassi – piano, trumpet, trombone, French horn, cello, vibes, clarinet, flute, recorder, alto saxophone, Wurlitzer, whistling, vocals.)

First things first. While some reviewers have cited the new Pat Metheny Unity Group as the nail in the coffin of the long-standing Pat Metheny Group (PMG), there’s no confirmation of same from Metheny HQ. When this reporter asked Metheny during a recent interview for DownBeat, “Why haven’t we seen a new PMG record?” he responded, “Everyone is doing their own thing.” It’s not likely that Metheny will ditch the multiple Grammy wining/best-selling partnership he established with keyboardist Lyle Mays over the course of 14 PMG albums. Better to go on hiatus then return to that illustrious songwriting duo energized and inspired.

Nevertheless, Kin (←→) – the second album featuring the new Metheny lineup (Chris Potter, Ben Williams, Antoinio Sanchez) augmented with multi-instrumentalist and vocal find Giuilio Carmassi – cleverly incorporates nearly every Metheny stylistic trait of the guitarist’s 35 year career. As Metheny states in the Kin (←→) press release: “The Unity Band record . . . was life- changing for me. One night, I woke up with the tantalizing idea of taking the concept of ‘unity’ even further. . . I envisioned building a platform capable of addressing the entire spectrum of things I have done over the years, from Bright Size Life to Secret Story, from my Group projects to the Orchestrion, and more, all in one place.

“Simultaneously,” Metheny continued, “I had been itching to write using more of an [orchestral] concept that went beyond the sonic limits of what a straight-ahead quartet might invoke. If the first Unity Band record was a black-and-white documentary . . . this [Unity Group] record is more like the Technicolor IMAX version of what a band like this could be—but with that hardcore thing still sitting right in the middle of it all.”

That orchestral lushness, a prime ingredient in Metheny’s success from Offramp and Still Life (Talking) to Imaginary Day, was missing from the robo-driven Unity Band recording. Metheny’s choice of Chris Potter, a tenor player in the mold of the late Michael Brecker but lacking his flow, articulation and sensitivity, definitely required a band-aid. Musicians love Potter’s ability to play the impossible, a hammer of a musician who can drill solos like nails into concrete and never take a breath. For listeners, Potter is a tougher pill to take, a volcanic soloist with a brittle edge. In Giuilio Carmassi Metheny has found not only his Everyman, a gifted vocalist, keyboardist, percussionist and trumpeter, but a musician whose warmer gifts soothe the savage Potter (even if he’s no Lyle Mays). The other PMUG musicians also get to stretch. Bassist Ben Williams doubles on electric, and drummer Sanchez adds cajón and performs his first ever recorded Metheny drum solo. Sanchez’s drums have never sounded richer, their woody timbre and his astounding facility heard to higher relief than on any previous Metheny recording.

As anyone who has attended a Unity Band concert can attest, this is a ferocious improvising outfit, each member apt to solo, support and explode at will. It’s yet to be seen how Carmassi will change the Group dynamic live, but Kin (<—->) is surely a positive sign. Unity Band demonstrated Metheny’s desire to work with a real playing band similar to the Pat Metheny Group (before audience expectations required it to perform practically as a pop group rehashing hits), but Unity Group is perhaps Metheny’s most dynamic band ever, at least improvisationally. Far from regurgitating past glories with new musicians, Kin (<—->) seeks to up the ante.

It’s almost impossible to not cherry-pick Kin(<—->); Metheny’s compositional and instrumental markers pop up throughout the album with an ironic familiarity. It’s almost as if Metheny thought, “I’ll take a bass line from Imaginary Day, an outro vamp off Letter from Home, throw in the Orchestrion for a harmonic palette, and odd metered handclaps from First Circle.” Metheny is no fool–these iconic musical moments are too frequent and deliberate. Ultimately these are tools performed with sincerity and passion. Metheny can still make you forget the past and hear his music in the moment, anew. Kin (<—->) is a lush, dynamic, and dramatic recording that while alluding to past touchstones also brings fresh melodic, instrumental and particularly harmonic values to the table.

“On Day One” is a perfect example of this past/present amalgam. A rubato glimmer leads to a rising crescendo, a rest, then a four/four bass drum joined to an odd metered hand-clapped cadence with Sanchez’s foot controlled clave-playing cowbell. An acoustic bass line full of portent sets up the melody, introduced by Metheny and Carmassi on vibraphone. It’s a familiar Metheny structure, and not far from the title track to Imaginary Day.  But before you can settle into the groove, the Orchestrion signals a gentle bell pattern, the melody played by Potter and Metheny further unfolds, a Steve Reichian 16th-note pattern ensues, then everything morphs into a Latin solo section. Classic Metheny and we’re only minutes into the first, nearly 15-minute opening track.

Madly strummed acoustic guitars ala New Chautauqua position the high-flying flamenco-tinted “Rise Up”; the beautiful acoustic guitar ballad “Adagio” could be an outtake from One Quiet Night; “Sign of the Season” is acoustic and electric, a bittersweet melody hanging over Sanchez’s whispering, pulsating cymbals and Orchestrion percussion. One thing’s for sure, Metheny’s indelible gift for melody is alive and well on Kin (<—->). The title track is a tour de force of Orchestrion pulses, fiery group rhythmic play, guitar synth, and that indefinable Metheny element that sounds and smells like the air before a thunderstorm, all kinetic electricity, light and intensity. “Born” is Metheny’s “Ferry Cross the Mersey” (which he covered on One Quiet Night), a grandly bittersweet rumination on what — loss? Love? Memory and forgiveness? Steel guitars ooze, a piano line caresses, brushed drums vibrate — it’s almost like a country ballad it’s so lovely and still. The bebop-kicking “Genealogy” recalls Ornette Coleman’s This Is Our Music, or perhaps something from Song X, before launching into the friendly smooth jazz of “We Go On” – like I said, it’s all here. Kin (<—->) closes with the Mike Brecker resurrecting soulfulness of “KQU.” Guitar and sax trace a mournful, playful, western skies-flecked melody, this son of Missouri sounding as at home with a Chet Atkins/Ernest Tubb riff as he is blasting guitar synth treatises from another world.

Can Pat Metheny have it all? Can he create a highly orchestral, densely arranged, dynamic and challenging recording performed by a band of ringers yet also recapture the melodic sweetness and instrumental ingenuity of his popular ‘90s period?

The final note of “KQU” is unresolved. Where songs typically end on a tonic note to signal all is well, that resolution is here and “we’re all one,” so to speak, this final Kin (<—->) track doesn’t do that. It’s left up in the air, unanswered. Metheny leaves the final thought up to you.

TrackList: One Day One, Rise Up, Adagia, Sign of the Season, Kin (←→), Born, Genealogy, We Go On, KQU

—Ken Micallef




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