Pat Metheny's Unity Group: Many, many, many notes

At least one positive development emerged from guitarist Pat Metheny's concert Tuesday night in Orchestra Hall: A raffle organized by Symphony Center raised funds for the Chi-Town Jazz Festival, which donates the proceeds to fight hunger.

Apart from that, however, you pretty much had to be a Metheny fan to value the over-reverberant, over-amplified, perpetually droning waves of sound that the guitarist and his Unity Group mercilessly churned out for more than two hours, without intermission. Surely Metheny admirers had a great deal to celebrate, for the guitarist, as always, was generous with his services and profuse in his production of notes. And more notes. And more notes.

But most of this work – much of it drawn from the band's new album, "Kin," and its predecessor, "Unity Band" – amounted to a kind of light instrumental pop, presented as if it were something more weighty. Yes, everything was technically nimble, vigorously performed and dispatched with considerable ambition and drive.

Yet Metheny's Unity Group ultimately thrives on what musicians call "plateau dynamics," which emphasize a mostly consistent volume level rather than a palpable sense of crescendo or decrescendo – or, in this case, much hint of tension and resolution. So the result was the musical equivalent of rather gaudy wallpaper, with particular musical patterns repeated and repeated and – well, you get the idea.

In effect, this was a kind of background music thrust unpersuasively into the foreground, which may help explain why Metheny used video screens to show scenes of clouds and rocks and sunsets and what-not. Alas, the visual monitors were too small to provide sufficient relief, the band and its stage paraphernalia partially obscuring the view. Not even the flickering lights from a previous Metheny venture, his similarly overblown "Orchestrion" project, offered adequate distraction (thought the twinkling bulbs were fun to watch while Metheny and friends sat on a riff for an infinity or two).

It took fully an hour and five minutes before Chris Potter, one of the most accomplished jazz saxophonists of the under-50 generation, was allowed to play a solo that could be heard adequately outside the din. All at once, the listener could savor the details of Potter's work, the intricacies of his musical thoughts, the inflections of his tone. Otherwise, Potter often was reduced to playing unison lines with Metheny's guitar, a great saxophonist transformed for an evening into Kenny G (albeit with considerably more technical panache). Sad.

And when vocalist Giulio Carmassi joined the fray, his falsetto howls could be considered unintentional self-satire. Did Metheny really believe that this high-pitched caterwauling actually added to the proceedings?

Many in the large audience, which mostly filled the terrace seating behind the stage, cheered. Others fled.

Still, amid the onslaught, there were moments of music-making. Metheny opened with a moody, other-worldly electric guitar solo that produced celestial sonorities and ringing overtones (though at least one listener imagined this would be an ideal soundtrack for getting a back massage). And a series of duets between Metheny and band members produced genuine musical give-and-take, as opposed to the heavily scripted passages the larger ensemble played through much of the evening. Metheny very nearly held his own in a rapid-fire duet with Potter (no small feat) and sounded inspired by the snap and power of Antonio Sanchez's brilliant statements on drums. Elsewhere in the evening, bassist Ben Williams sounded deeply musical whenever he could be heard.

But in "Come and See" and "Roofdogs," from the "Unity Band" album, the ensemble's synthetic tonal quality and Metheny's guitar-hero antics quickly grew tiresome. And "Kin," the title track of the new album and its only redeeming track, was diminished in this setting, the instrumental clarity and melodic fervor of the recording virtually lost in a bland wash of decibels.

What was the point of it all?

Twitter @howardreich


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