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Field Notes: Pat Metheny at the Detroit Jazz Festival

A jazz celebrity as artist-in-residence

Pat Metheny (l.) and Antonio Sanchez, Detroit Jazz Festival 2015
Pat Metheny (l.) and Gary Burton, Detroit Jazz Festival, 2015
Pat Metheny (l.) and Ron Carter, Detroit Jazz Festival, 2015
Trumpeter Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah's Stretch Music at the Detroit Jazz Festival, September 2015
Anat Cohen, Eddie Daniels, Ken Peplowski and Paquito D'Rivera (from left) in "Benny's Threads" at the 2015 Detroit Jazz Festival
James "Blood" Ulmer at the Detroit Jazz Festival, September 2015
James Carter at the Detroit Jazz Festival, September 2015
John Scofield (left) and Joe Lovano at the Detroit Jazz Festival, September 2015
Paquito D'Rivera at the Detroit Jazz Festival, September 2015
Ron Carter (left) and Pat Metheny at the Detroit Jazz Festival, September 2015
Chicago's the Fat Babies at the Detroit Jazz Festival, September 2015

Is Pat Metheny the last of the true-blue jazz stars? There have been jazz musicians since him who’ve cultivated enough cachet to be interviewed by 60 Minutes and win token awards from arts organizations, but Metheny might be the last jazz figure who’s a cultural touchstone in the general sense, a celebrity who creates shared experiences for a generation-in the case of the guitarist, now 61, that primarily means music fans born during the middle and late stages of the baby boom.

At Detroit’s annual admission-free jazz festival, where he was artist-in-residence, giving a performance on each of the event’s four dates, his star power was conspicuous. When he opened and closed the festival in its largest venues, the crowd surged to fill every nook of available space, offering levels of applause to make arena-rockers envious and shouting the names of the indelible folk- and pop-like melodies they wanted to hear. On the remaining evenings, Metheny was scheduled on the festival’s two midsize stages, which incited feeding frenzies and pointed up one of the organizers’ few missteps.

There are many reasons why Metheny has truly crossed over where similar musicians haven’t been able to crack the code, and foremost among them is the tunes. With no effort, you leave his concerts singing in your head. On Friday, Sept. 4, opening night, with his intuitive trio of bassist Scott Colley and drummer Antonio Sanchez, that meant bedrock Metheny/Lyle Mays works like “James,” with its unshakable theme, and “Are You Going With Me?,” whose hook lies in its flowing, krautrockish ambience. (Speaking of compositions, special guest and Detroit son Kenny Garrett donated one of his own bulletproof melodies, “Sing a Song of Song,” a perfect launch pad for the alto player’s superbly intonated altissimo climb.) Three nights later, after a premiere of Metheny’s strikingly inventive tribute to Eberhard Weber-more on that in an upcoming issue-came a hit parade of sorts, with support from drummer Danny Gottlieb and a local string orchestra assembled for the occasion. Here, Metheny’s “Last Train Home” came off like that rare piece of film score that goes into your regular listening rotation.

Two days prior, Metheny’s trio was augmented by his early mentor and advocate, the vibraphonist Gary Burton. In a small group or duo, Metheny and Burton demonstrate a remarkable ability to play action-packed music within the temperament of chamber jazz. In its first half, the set list doubled that of the excellent 2009 Concord disc Quartet Live, featuring the same personnel as this night’s save for bassist Steve Swallow: “Sea Journey,” by Chick Corea; “Olhos de Gato,” by Carla Bley, who appeared at the festival the following day, along with Swallow, at the helm of Charlie Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra; Swallow’s “Falling Grace”; and Keith Jarrett’s “Coral.” These are works from the last truly fertile era in jazz composition, rich in every facet, ideal for the harmonically ingenious, smartly virtuosic four-mallet attack that Burton revolutionized. (And for all the ensemble synergy, not to mention Metheny’s showmanship, including his synth-guitar flights near set’s end-let it be known that the man knows how to program excitement-this was chiefly Burton’s showcase.)

One especially potent highlight was a duo performance of “Summertime” that, with Metheny’s wide-open strumming on steel-string acoustic, gave this bluesy lament a new, strange urgency. What I heard of Metheny’s other duo set, a late-afternoon recital with bassist Ron Carter, took standards to more familiar destinations. Tradition-honoring renditions of “All the Things You Are” and “St. Thomas” flaunted Metheny’s lyrical, lucid, determined soloing and the woody sheen of his tone. Carter walked with his usual rock-hard elegance and performed a masterful solo arrangement of “You Are My Sunshine.” Due to the capacity crowd I couldn’t see anything, so I listened intently and looked out on the Detroit River, and Canada.

The Metheny performances were the most momentous of the weekend, but they had stiff competition. The Detroit festival, which utilizes a walkable downtown featuring two pre-existing amphitheaters that feel as natural as rock formations, is marvelously balanced all-around, and therein lies the key to its success.

In 2015, special events like the premiere of Danilo Pérez’s orchestral Detroit World Suite and “Benny’s Threads,” an all-star clarinet tribute to Goodman featuring sound-alike charts by Gordon Goodwin, found near-equal footing alongside headlining institutions like the Maria Schneider Orchestra and the recently reunited John Scofield/Joe Lovano Quartet, whose R&B-savvy frontline could be considered postbop’s analogue to Duane Allman and Dickey Betts. Motor City heroes, like perennial favorite James Carter on saxophones or the durable, workmanlike soul-jazz guitarist Perry Hughes, seized the opportunity to lift up their hometown as touring bands made their rounds. The centrist programming tipped more adventurous now and again-for instance, the funky, cutting harmolodic blues of James “Blood” Ulmer and the loose, raucous modal hang that was Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah’s Stretch Music-but rarely at the expense of accessibility. It all made for a fun atmosphere conducive to both focused listening and casual city-life entertainment.

Originally Published