Pat Metheny may just be the closest thing the contemporary jazz world has to a slight of hand magician. During a tireless 2 ½ hour performance last night at the KCD Theater in Louisville, not everything was what it seemed. He conjured acoustic sounds from an electric guitar and later squeezed electric firepower out of an acoustic guitar. Oh, and those keyboard and percussion sounds the audience heard chattering away for most of the night were actually the non-man made products of the Rube Goldberg-like Orchestrion.
Even the evening’s repertoire was a surprise. With two albums under his belt by two different versions of his Unity Group, one might suppose Metheny would go the route of the typical jazzer and discard material that could be viewed as a product of the past. Well, that wasn’t the case either.
After a show-opening exhibition on the double-necked harp guitar, the founding members of the Unity Group – saxophonist/bass clarinetist/flutist Chris Potter, bassist Ben Williams and drummer Antonio Sanchez – ran through a quartet of meaty mainstream tunes – two of which, The Bat and Folk Song No. 1 came from Metheny’s seminal 80/81 album (the guitarist’s first recording away from the fusion fold) with the others, Roofdogs and Come and See, hailing from his current troupe’s 2012 debut album, Unity Band.
The name change from Unity Band to Unity Group for the new Kin album is more telling than it appears. The new lineup, which added Italian multi-instrumentalist Giulio Carmassi to the quartet, brought a heightened lyricism and orchestral sheen to the music that often recalled the guitarist’s career defining Pat Metheny Group. But Carmassi was often an invisible presence, figuratively and literally, last night. He seldom soloed and was hidden from much of the audience’s view behind Sanchez. And while he is credited with playing over a dozen instruments on Kin, the majority of what would have been his onstage duties were handled by the Orchestration.
As much a living science experiment as anything else, the Orchestrion is a computer triggeed assembly of instruments – mostly percussive devices along with two cabinets of bottles and jugs that were used as homemade chambers for keyboard sounds. Together with the fiercely organic sounds of the Unity Group, Kin tunes like the gospel flavored Born and the anthemic On Day One, as well as the bolero-like 1982 PMG staple Are You Going With Me?, possessed a sound that was truly epic in scope.
Metheny nicely scaled back the program, though, for a series of duets with his bandmates, including a spry bit of sparring with Williams on 1976’s Bright Size Life. Perhaps the grand antithesis of the Orchestrion-directed music was an extended encore medley of melodies from throughout his 35 year that began with Phase Dance and concluded with Last Train Home. The trick? For once, there was none. Metheny served up the history lesson alone on unembellished acoustic guitar.