Ever since 1980, when guitarist Pat Metheny became a big enough jazz star to record whatever he wanted, he has more or less alternated avant-garde ventures with more populist projects. His user-friendly collaborations with keyboardist Lyle Mays in the ’80s and ’90s were interspersed with more adventurous partnerships with Ornette Coleman, Charlie Haden and Steve Reich.
Last year, Metheny released Tap: Book of Angels, Volume 20, a collection of knotty, sometimes grating John Zorn compositions thrillingly executed by a multitracking Metheny and his regular drummer, Antonio Sanchez. This year the guitarist is back with a more mainstream recording, Kin (←→), with his recent Unity Band (Sanchez, bassist Ben Williams and saxophonist Chris Potter) supplemented by keyboardist Giulio Carmassi—and accordingly renamed the Unity Group. It’s an album of strong melodic themes, accessible structures and enjoyably tonal playing, yet it would be foolish to dismiss Kin (←→) as compromised commercialism.
Melody writing is the most underrated skill in jazz today, perhaps because it’s also the rarest. There are thousands of jazz musicians who congratulate themselves on writing in 7/4 and 9/4 and on shifting their solos from tonal to atonal and back again. But how many of them can write a ballad that someone might want to hum to a lover? Metheny has written two such ballads for his new album: the old-fashioned romance “Adagia” and the pastoral hymn “Born.” Both boast tunes so gorgeous, so full of feeling, that the listener wants to hear them again and again as each soloist takes a crack at the theme.
The midtempo and uptempo tunes contain strong melodic material as well. But tunes are not enough; a jazz fan wants to hear the drama of conflict and resolution, of invention and reinvention. It’s easy to generate such drama with avant-garde strategies—unexpected juxtapositions of tonality, texture or tempo. But how do you do it within a mainstream context, especially in this day and age when vanguard experimentation makes so much populist jazz seem tedious by contrast?
Metheny solves this problem by writing not just one strong theme for each composition but two, three or four. Thus he can generate tension and release by suddenly shifting from one theme to another, by going from each notated theme to improvisations, by having some instruments play notation while others improvise and by playing the same theme in ballad, midtempo and uptempo settings. This approach is most obvious on the 15-minute opening track, “On Day One,” which rises and falls in volume, intensity and pitch as it moves from section to section.
Such arrangements only work if you have a stable band that can learn, rehearse and perform such premeditated scripts until they sound spontaneous. The Unity Group is just such a band. Potter has assumed Lyle Mays’ role as principal foil, often pitting his soprano sax against Metheny’s guitar for duet statements of each theme, then switching to tenor for full-throated solos.
When the frontline is repeating especially attractive riffs and vamps, the rhythm section of Sanchez and Williams creates the needed tension by changing their parts with each repetition. Williams gets his own chances at the melodic material, soloing lyrically on plucked upright, bowed upright and electric bass. Carmassi, who comes out of the pop-jazz world of Emmy Rossum, Will Lee and Chuck Loeb, gets fewer solos than the bassist, but his piano and electric keyboard parts, as well as his doubling on various horns and scat vocals, create an orchestral fullness that 2012’s Unity Band lacked.
Metheny makes a quick nod to his postmodernist tendencies with “Genealogy,” a 38-second, Ornette-ish sequence of sharp turns, which the quintet pulls off with flair. In doing so, the guitarist implies that jazz musicians shouldn’t limit themselves to just avant-garde or just mainstream music—and listeners shouldn’t either.