Guitarist Pat Metheny’s music and approach belies rigid compartmentalization. While he’s quite capable of handling straightahead jazz, Metheny will periodically explore the avant-garde, dabble with rock and funk grooves, venture into folk or New Age themes, even utilize feedback and noise. He’s equally impressive on acoustic or electric instruments, and his playing seldom lapses into gimmick, even when he’s tinkering with guitar synthesizers or adding a 42-string and/or 12-string fretless axe into his arsenal. Although he spent a four-year period in the ’70s working with pianist Paul Bley, bassist Jaco Pastorius and most notably Gary Burton, Metheny’s best work has always come when’s he’s a bandleader, with his vision, compositions and style determining the musical agenda. Metheny’s current trio, which features bassist Larry Grenadier and drummer Bill Stewart, are spotlighted on this two-disc set chronicling various concert numbers recorded during 1999 and 2000 tours in Europe, Japan and America, respectively.
The best works are lengthy pieces where Metheny and comrades juggle tempos, switch themes, mix solos and intersect in odd places. Their songs are sometimes erratic, but they’re never total flops. The nearly 20-minute “Question and Answer” on the first disc, or 18-minute plus “Faith Healer” on disc number two, send the listener in multiple directions and on different paths. The moods range from pastoral to bombastic, the solos from calm to clashing. Metheny’s touch and sound are immediately recognizable, and frequently delightful. He provides everything from sonic fireworks to tender phrases, nimble chordal accompaniment, flashy phrases and careful statements. Metheny’s not a bluesy or soulful stylist, yet his playing on “Into the Dream,” “Unity Village” and “Night Turns Into Day” has a striking clarity and hypnotic edge.
Neither Grenadier nor Stewart will dazzle anyone with technique. Fortunately, they’re keenly attuned to Metheny’s pace and thoroughly immersed in his music. As a result, the ensemble performances on both discs are superb. There’s never a sense anyone’s out of sync or rambling in search of focus. This compensates for the bland solos Grenadier and Stewart offer when they get their own space. Grenadier’s the better soloist, but he and Stewart are far more interesting accompanying Metheny than doing their own thing. Likewise, the set’s only uninteresting pieces are the cover tunes. The trio’s versions of “Giant Steps” and “All the Things You Are” sound like homages rather than intensely felt pieces.
Metheny plods through “Giant Steps” with less intensity than on any other selection, seemingly more intent on acknowledging the composition’s historical significance than having anything fresh to say. These tunes aside, this two-disc session demonstrates how Pat Metheny’s maintained popularity both with fans of improvisational music and rock/pop-oriented fare. He’s a talented writer and instrumentalist with a strong sense of musical integrity and identity, and that’s illustrated most of the time on these discs.