Sunday, June 17, 2012

Review: Pat Metheny Unity Band

It’s been a long time since Pat Metheny has had a saxophonist in his band (apparently 30 years, since the superb “80/81” album, with Dewey Redman and Mike Brecker), so “Pat Metheny Unity Band” (Nonesuch) is something of an event, with Chris Potter playing saxophone; Ben Williams on bass and Antonio Sanchez on drums complete the quartet.  This album is mostly a showcase for Metheny and Potter, with a few solos from Williams and Sanchez, though their support is excellent.  Potter plays almost exclusively on tenor sax, with one solo on soprano and some background playing on bass clarinet.

The album starts with “New Year,” a pretty tune with a Latin feel, Metheny on acoustic guitar.  Potter solos on tenor, displaying strong low notes as well as a fluid command of the altissimo range of the horn.  “Roofdogs” is a straightahead anthem, with Metheny on guitar synthesizer and Potter in unision on soprano sax.  This one is similar to the sound on Mike Brecker’s “Tales of the Hudson,” where Metheny’s work is prominent.  Potter plays a strong soprano solo, with Metheny’s guitar synthesizer sounding like an electrified violin.  On “Come and See,” Metheny and Potter start out a little spacy, Potter noodling on bass clarinet and Metheny playing something that sounds like an oriental harp.  The tune moves into a medium-tempo groove with Potter back on tenor.  He plays one of his strongest solos here.  “This Belongs to You” is a pretty ballad which is a feature for Metheny on his acoustic electric.  Potter plays tenor in unison on the melody with Metheny, but he doesn’t solo. 

“Leaving Town” is a nice medium tempo tune, somewhat similar to Metheny’s well-known tune “James.”  Potter digs in for a very strong solo here, a little edgier than usual.  “Interval Waltz” is a pretty, strolling, minor waltz.  Potter matches the prettiness of the tune with his own fine tenor solo.  “Signals (Orchestrion sketch)” starts with some Potter playing on bass clarinet and Metheny fooling around with a variety of sounds.  (The first part of the tune has some pre-recorded playing from the band.)  After almost 3 minutes of fairly aimless playing, the tune starts an uptempo groove, sounding a bit like Ike Sturm’s “Spirit,” though where Sturm uses a 10-piece ensemble, Metheny uses his orchestrion.  Metheny and Potter improvise together, Potter on tenor and Metheny on guitar synthesizer, their lines weaving around each other.  (For anyone who wants to learn more about Metheny's orchestrion project, click here.)  “Then and Now” is another pretty ballad, with Metheny on acoustic electric.  Potter plays a nice, easy-going solo on tenor, avoiding pyrotechnics until the very end, where he makes a series of fast swoops into the altissimo register.  The album ends with a straightahead, uptempo tune, Metheny on acoustic electric, Potter on tenor.  Metheny shows off his chops, playing lines with lightning-fast fingering.  Potter solos with his own lightning-fast lines.
This album has great variety and pacing.  The tunes have perfect length.  It’s not ground-breaking, but it’s a pleasure from beginning to end.  How can you go wrong with strong Pat Metheny compositions and playing and Chris Potter playing at the top of his game?  Potter’s playing isn’t quite as adventurous as Mike Brecker’s (Metheny’s frequent collaborator before he passed away)--I get the impression that Potter has his roots much more in Charlie Parker than John Coltrane--but he plays exceptionally well throughout the album.  Jazz saxophone fans will not be disappointed with this one.

To listen to the whole of the first cut on the album, "New Year," click here.

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