After not having a saxophonist or reed instrumentalist in his group for nearly three decades, Metheny recruited ace multi-instrumentalist Chris Potter for his Unity Band in 2012. He was a key addition.
The group’s Sunday concert at the Ryman showcased not only the band’s stylistic versatility, but Metheny’s strengths as a composer and player, while spotlighting the things that make him extremely difficult to categorize.
Metheny played several different guitars during the 2 1/2 concert, alternating between acoustic and electric, assertive pieces and romantic/sentimental ones. Sometimes he utilized a synthesizer, other times he eschewed amplification or electronics, but whatever the context, his technique was immaculate and his sound distinctive.
The group’s music was buttressed by a scaled-down version of the Orchestrion, a multi-instrument device Metheny built that enables him to include a host of textures, colors and sounds without adding more players to the core quintet. Some songs also included orchestration and changing light backgrounds on strategically located video screens.
His current Unity Band quartet ranks among the finest he’s led. Chris Potter (tenor and soprano saxophones, bass clarinet and flute) is an exceptional soloist, particularly on tenor and soprano. He plays fierce, relentless solos that sometimes seem out of control, but are always well constructed, imaginative and impressive.
Bassist Ben Williams and drummer Antonio Sanchez are equally important pieces of the group puzzle. They are comfortable in any setting, capable of fueling tension, providing lighter backing, or offering their own compelling solos. Pianist/vocalist Guilio Carmassi came aboard for the second set, bringing another invigorating instrumental element into the equation.
The concert’s first half included mainly pieces from the first Unity Band album released in 2012. Such tunes as “Roof Dogs” and “Leaving Town” contained both lengthy unison segments and fiery contributions from the individual band members, particularly Potter on bass clarinet, tenor and soprano.
The second half balanced solo, duet and group segments, as the band played several numbers from their current LP “Kin,” while also briefly departing from the program of all-original music for some interpretative pieces.
The best of these was a dazzling version of “All The Things You Are” between Potter and Metheny that saw both men constantly increasing their intensity until reaching a marvelous climatic point, and “Go Get It,” a drum/guitar encounter with Sanchez delivering his best solo and Metheny adopting a more percussive approach to fit the context.
Despite the program’s length, very few fans departed before its conclusion. A handful departed at the 60-minute mark, a and a few more when it extended beyond two hours, but the bulk of the crowd (roughly 2/3 of a house) stayed through the end and were rewarded with two encores. The group received six standing ovations during the evening, and Metheny remarked he didn’t even remember the last time he’d been in Nashville (“1990 someone yelled from the crowd).
Based on the response and reception, both Metheny and the Unity band shouldn’t make it a couple of decades before they return. While the traditionalists and purists might decry the lack of swing or hard bop influences in most of the tunes, there’s no doubt that Metheny’s Unity Band does satisfy the prime mandate of a top jazz band: high caliber musicianship.