Pat Metheny Unity Group explores kinship through music with new project
At first glance, Kin(←→) would appear to be the second release by guitarist Pat Metheny’s latest ensemble, which features saxophonist Chris Potter, bassist Ben Williams, and drummer Antonio Sánchez. But there are small but telling differences; where that quartet’s 2012 album was credited to Metheny and titled Unity Band, this time out the band expands to a quintet with the addition of percussionist Giulio Carmassi and is rechristened the Pat Metheny Unity Group.
That switch – from one synonym for a gaggle of musicians playing together to another – may seem insignificant, even arbitrary. But for longtime observers of Metheny’s career it suggests a link to his longest-running and most creatively fertile unit, the Pat Metheny Group. “I changed the name from ‘Band’ to ‘Group’ because it sort of implies a connection with my regular band stuff in style and to differentiate the music and the nature of this project a little bit from the first round,” Metheny wrote in an email. “As I have described a few times, if the first Unity Band record was kind of like a black and white documentary type record, this is the IMAX 3D version of the band.”
Whatever you might call the particular configuration at any given moment, it’s obvious that the important element in the band’s sobriquet is the word “Unity.” The sense of a strong collective bond is echoed by the new album’s title, which suggests a familial connection, a feeling of kinship.
“’Kin’ is a word that implies connection or family or lineage,” Metheny said. “To me, like the word ‘Unity,’ it really fits with what I am shooting for – and not just with this band, in music in general. I like the idea of making connections, finding inclusion and forming a way of thinking about not just the way the people making the music may be connected to each other, but also the way the music that I hope to present has connections with all of the other music I love.”
The Unity Group is the latest manifestation of Metheny’s constant evolution, a will to push forward and reinvent himself that has been evident throughout his four-decade career. Over that time he has established himself as one of jazz’s most renowned bandleaders, a torchbearer for don’t-look-back fusion, and a 20-time Grammy winner.
When the Unity Band came together in 2012, it marked the first time in more than thirty years that Metheny recorded with a band in which he shared the frontline with a tenor saxophonist. The last time had been the album 80/81, which featured sax greats Dewey Redman and Michael Brecker. The reason he finally invited another sax player, he says, was simple – in Chris Potter, he found someone who merited inclusion in the ranks with those two legendary names.
“The whole thing started with me wanting to do something with Chris,” he explained – I think I had to wait 30 years for him to show up!”
An acclaimed leader in his own right and undoubtedly one of the finest saxophonists of his generation, Potter proves a deft partner for Metheny in the Unity Group, complementing the leader’s deft balance of color and muscle with his own. But the rest of the group is equally skilled and versatile – Williams is a rising star in the jazz world who won the 2009 Thelonious Monk International Bass Competition, while Sánchez is an in-demand sideman who also anchors the Pat Metheny Group and Trio.
“This band is unique,” Metheny said. “It is such a strong group of musicians, and my goal was very specific this time. I am really happy with the result and it lines up almost exactly with what I was aiming for.”
The addition of multi-instrumentalist Carmassi greatly extends the band’s already estimable sonic possibilities. “I knew I likely had to expand the palette by adding another musician,” Metheny explained. “However, I didn’t want to alter the incredible dynamic of the core quartet. What I really needed was a good musician who could play a lot of parts, kind of like a session musician. I needed someone to kind of fill out the sound of the band as kind of a utility musician; I didn’t really need another soloist or creative force, especially with Chris Potter standing right there, but I did need someone who understands the language that we are dealing in and can contribute in a textural way and give me another voice to write for.”
Aside from the addition of Carmassi, most of the remainder of the band has a much longer list of instrumental credits behind their names in the albums liner notes. Sánchez adds cajon to his trap duties, while Potter supplements his tenor playing with soprano sax, clarinet and bass clarinet, and flutes. And Metheny employs not only his usual barrage of guitars and synths but also his Orchestrion, an array of mechanical instruments triggered by pneumatics and solenoids from his guitar, a robotic orchestra conducted by his own playing.
Metheny introduced the strange automaton symphony on his 2012 album The Orchestrion Project. It was assumed at the time to be a one-time novelty, but he has continued to employ it in a variety of contexts since. “Once I get to something, I rarely abandon it – I usually just keep adding and expanding,” he said. “Everything grows in viability for me as I understand it better over time.”
The same applies to the Unity Group, which has evolved into a far more evocative and cohesive whole on its second outing. The experience of touring together following the first album revealed what the musicians were capable of and honed an identifiable group sound, both of which Metheny seized upon when writing material for their follow-up.
“Because I had heard each guy play so much, I had much more of a sense of what they could do and what, in my opinion of course, they were especially good at,” Metheny said. “And knowing that we would continue to play a lot of concerts, I wanted the music to be challenging on a night to night basis as well… Beyond that, this may be the first band I have ever had that really can address everything from my trio stuff, to stuff from Song X [his avant-garde outing with legendary alto saxophonist Ornette Coleman], all of my regular band stuff, the more straight ahead kinds of things; all of it can coexist under one roof.”
As diverse as those elements may be, Metheny doesn’t differentiate between his wide-ranging output, so having a band that can explore its entirety is especially enticing. “To me,” he said, “all of the recordings I have made over the years are like one long record, or one long story divided up into different chapters, with different tones, different characters coming and going and sometimes wildly different temperatures represented. Every record that I have done has been offered with the idea of trying to reconcile the things that I love about music and that have had resonance to me with what I perceive are my favorite aspects of the musicians that I have hired to join me on this or that particular part of the journey.”
That journey continues on Kin(←→), which Metheny insists represents not just his strong feelings of communion with his latest band but with collaborators yet to come. “The ‘unpronounceable’ symbol (←→), was something that just sort of popped out that I thought did a good job of indicating that our ‘kin’ is not always behind us chronologically in an ancestral sense – we are also going to be the ancestors for many generations to come. So this is a message to those future listeners as well.”
Pat Metheny Unity Group will perform at the Keswick Theatre this Saturday, March 22nd. Tickets and information can be found here.