Pat Metheny introduces a new twist or turn with each album, and he’s taken so many turns, he’s bound to end up in a spot he’s been in before. His latest project the Unity Band at first blush may be taking his Day Trip band, keeping drummer Antonio Sanchez, swapping Christian McBride for Ben Williams (Marcus Strickland, Jacky Terrasson, Stefon Harris) and adding a sax player, Chris Potter. More comparable is something he last did over three decades ago. The last time Metheny had a sax player on his record, our presidential contestants were Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan. On 80/81 (1980) there was his dearly departed friend Michael Brecker and/or Dewey Redman, with Charlie Haden and Jack DeJohnette backing up Pat.
Unity Band revisits 80/81 to the extent that Metheny once again takes full advantage of the harmonic possibilities of pairing up with a sax player both with composition and performance, but does so informed with the many tricks and refinement he’s picked up in the ensuing years. There’s a reference to many points of his career, such as the Spanish guitar found surprisingly right at the start on “New Year” (video below), the Synclavier guitar that rains down notes on “Roofdogs” and his 42-stringed Pikasso appears on “Come and See.” On each turn, Potter serves as perfect complement, whether it’s the affectional expressions on “New Year,” picking up a soprano sax to combine fluidly with Metheny’s guitar synth on “Roofdogs” or a bass clarinet to match the deeply rich sounds from the leader’s exotic axe.
Sometimes Metheny regulates himself to more of the sideman role, but it’s a side of him that’s most overlooked; he gives “Interval Waltz” and “Then And Now” Potter the starring roles, as these are songs written optimally for sax. Metheny still has a firm lock as the champion of fluid, quicksilver lines, a status he asserts on the restive “Breakdealer.” He saved up his most overt experimentation for “Signals,” where he creates a hypnotic groove using his Orchestrion contraption while creating on-the-spot loops with his guitar. On top of and around these luscious layers of ostinatos, the rest of the band carves out the rest of the story. It’s a fascinating melding of the big idea Metheny had in 2010 with his recent small group projects.
The real heroes of this set are the rhythm section. On every track, Sanchez relentlessly pushes out the songs to their rhythmic limits, and Williams digs deep into the harmony and settles in. When Williams gets in solos, he is thoughtful and mellifluous in a way that recalls a longtime Metheny bassist, Steve Rodby (who is on hand in the booth as associate producer). Metheny and Potter are left free to roam all over the melody and investigate every crevice of it, which they surely do at the elite level.
All of that points right to the title of the band and the album. As dominant a force as Pat Metheny has been in jazz of all sorts since he burst into the scene in the mid-70s, he’s always been able to make a whole band sound dominant, with sympathetic interplay, united in purpose. And this band lives up to the name.
Unity Band went on sale June 12, by Nonesuch Records.