Those anticipating that Pat Metheny and bassist Larry Grenadier would be playing material from the guitarist’s recent solo album of pop covers, What’s It All About (Nonesuch), at the Somerville Theatre in suburban Boston were in for a surprise. The duo’s Oct. 9 set ignored the new disc in favor of music largely drawn from tunes they had tackled together before in a trio with drummer Bill Stewart or in collaboration with Grenadier’s longtime pianist employer, Brad Mehldau.
The idea, Metheny explained during a pause to announce tune titles, was for him and Grenadier to more fully explore the deep rapport they discovered on those earlier outings. Putting together a tour of duo performances in Europe would have been a breeze, Metheny noted, but the two of them had also managed to line up roughly 20 concerts in the U.S., including a run still in progress at the Blue Note in New York.
By this point the audience had already seen ample evidence of said rapport. The pair had opened with Mehldau’s “Unrequited,” from the 2006 album Metheny Mehldau, then moved on to the Metheny classic “Bright Size Life,” which they’d recorded with Stewart on a live trio disc. The opening chords of the latter drew an appreciative wave of recognition, and Metheny later noted that he had written that breakthrough song of his while living in Boston.
And so it went through the set’s first half. The tune closest in feel to a traditional jazz standard, Metheny’s bluesy “Soul Cowboy,” came next, and Grenadier’s earthy solo on it earned him a big round of applause. Two pieces from Metheny’s album Question and Answer with Dave Holland and Roy Haynes followed, the Grammy-winning composition “Change of Heart” and the title tune. Metheny was at his best on “Question and Answer”-passionate, precise, inventive; exquisite melodic embellishments coupled with offhand harmonic wizardry-and Grenadier’s solo outdid even his masterful effort on “Soul Cowboy.” Metheny’s brilliance is old news by now, but in this duo setting Grenadier got a real chance to shine, with solo turns on virtually every piece.
The set’s second half began with Metheny’s “Find Me in Your Dreams,” which he recorded with Mehldau and said he had then forgotten about until the flamenco singer Estrella Morente did a version of it. Metheny played his own lovely, flamenco-flavored take on the tune, then followed it with “Always and Forever,” which Grenadier was also showcased on.
Now it was time to go more experimental. Grenadier exited the stage so that Metheny could improvise a piece on his custom 42-string Pikasso guitar. What he came up with seemed downright orchestral, Metheny layering chord upon chord as the piece built in intensity, somehow keeping all those strummed notes up in the air and sensibly balanced.
More orchestral still was another entirely improvised piece, this one performed via a scaled-down version of Metheny’s Orchestrion project from last year. Grenadier rejoined him onstage as Metheny set into motion a bank of eight or more computerized speakers lined up across the stage behind the two of them. Metheny’s guitar sounded vaguely sitar-like early on as a snippet of rhythm kicked in, accentuated by a flashing spot of white light on one of the speakers, as Grenadier stood respectfully watching and swaying to the rhythm. The piece soon began building in power, Grenadier digging into a groove as Metheny kept everything in motion via his guitar and an array of foot pedals. Soon it sounded as if a drummer had joined them, and as the piece climaxed it seemed the two of them had been transformed into a full-fledged band. This was the only piece throughout the set to make use of all that electronic equipment, so Metheny would have been excused had he spared himself the extra trouble and expense by leaving it at home. But thankfully artists aren’t accountants, and this mesmerizing performance was arguably the main highlight in a show full of them.
A pair of standing ovations earned the audience a pair of encores. “Stranger in Town” came first, and then Metheny and Grenadier took their leave with a fast run-through of “James,” Metheny’s tribute to James Taylor. Here, finally, came an oblique nod to Metheny’s love of pop music. This concert never was about Metheny’s new record, as it turned out. But no one seemed to mind much.