LJF 2017: Pat Metheny

Pat Metheny's quartet provides Francis Graham-Dixon with a special evening in the form of a two and a half hour set at the Barbican Centre

I reviewed the great guitarist with his Unity Band three years ago in JJ, and felt certain that that particular line-up of musicians would go down in the Metheny annals as one of his most adventurous. True to his past, Metheny has retained the musical curiosity and integrity to keep reinventing himself and his music, and last night’s performance with his new quartet at the Barbican carried on in this vein, and often scaled even greater heights.

The group’s performance was particularly impressive, as Metheny decided to revisit a lot of older tunes he hasn’t played in ages. Never one to talk a lot on stage, allowing his playing to speak instead, he added that it would "be fun to see what they do with them".

The two and a half hour packed set was a very personal and eclectic rollercoaster of 40 years of great composing going back to the seminal Bright Size Life. It felt at times that he was trying to cram in too much material and one or two pieces ended just as the audience was settling in for some extended improvisation. In truth, it just left this listener on the edge of his seat wondering what would come next. His back catalogue is that good.

One of the evening’s highlights was to witness – again – the emotional glue between Metheny and his collaborator for the past 15 years, master drummer and percussionist Antonio Sanchez. The Mexican maestro’s performance was simply one of the finest, most joy-filled complete displays of the art that I have witnessed. Sanchez’s originality lies in a lightness of touch and understatement married to an energy and dynamism that is matched by few others plying his trade. Nana Vasconcelos could have been on stage with him in spirit – it was like listening to two percussionists simultaneously.

Sanchez's signature style of playing melodically provided the springboard for the prodigious talents of Malaysian-born and Perth-raised Linda Oh, now filling the double bass chair and switching to electric bass on two tunes. Hers was a performance of poise and dexterity.

Metheny has returned to working with piano. Gwilym Simcock, although strangely subdued (and insufficiently miked-up) in the early stages, gradually warmed to his task with some exhilarating solos on Better Days Ahead, then Phase Dance, and climaxing with Travels, sounding as fresh as, but rhythmically very different from Lyle Mays’s live tour de force 35 years ago. One more contemplative solo had the feel of a piano recital infused with the spirits of Debussy and Ravel, with shading from the brushstrokes of Sanchez.

Metheny must have used half a dozen different customised guitars as well as his trademark guitar synth. He coaxes a dazzling variety of sounds and effects from them all in turn. The set opened with a virtuoso journey exploring the harmonic range and textures of his customised 48-string guitar with multiple fret-boards, and ended with a classical medley revisiting classics from his Latin trilogy of albums, such as Minuano from Still Life (Talking) and James from Offramp.

On balance, the most transcendent moments came with a 30-minute section devoted to guitar duets, his duo albums long regarded as a core component of his oeuvre. Oh and Simcock left the stage to Metheny and Sanchez who constructed some mesmeric interplay in the aptly-titled Q&A. Sanchez departed stage right, Metheny now joined by Oh who conjured a rendition of Change Of Heart which felt like chamber music for a new age. Simcock returned with a solo, with Metheny this time playing the bass-line support role.

Metheny modestly announced that it was "always nice to get the invitation". He certainly didn’t arrive empty-handed and no doubt an open invitation has already been extended to a man whose timeless music, humility and positive energy will continue to touch audiences wherever he goes. A special evening.

Photo by Jimmy Katz

post a comment