Metheny’s fare satisfies many tastes

Boston Globe, March 29, 2005

Like all artists, musicians are best approached on their own terms. Anyone who took in the Pat Metheny Group at the Orpheum Saturday night with the goal of answering the eternal question that bedevils the group “But is it jazz?” received their just comeuppance. For close to three hours, Metheny and his crew shredded the question to bits, veering from relaxed, in-the-cut cooking to eerie synthetic whispers, and outrageous stadium pyrotechnics, much to the delight of a sold-out crowd heavy on beards and bald spots.

At its most compelling, the Metheny Group sound establishes itself somewhere in the middle distance, with Metheny’s trademark guitar tone round, slightly disembodied, lurching skyward methodically tracing the landscape. His acolytes then take turns beaming the message back in. Cuong Vu’s straight-ahead trumpet phrasings and Gregoire Maret’s thoughtful lyricism on the harmonica stood out for their emotional impact. At those moments the group achieved a level of play with distance and proximity not unlike some of Miles Davis’s later works.

The group’s new album, “The Way Up” consisting of a single long- form suite that it played in its entirety to open the show lends itself to such explorations, making it one of Metheny’s more satisfying recent releases. Though layered and nearly symphonic, it mainly refrains from guitar fireworks, leaving room for group members to exhibit their chops and for the audience to form their own interpretations. The composition’s ending, quiet and quizzical instead of bombastic and definitive, only adds to its elegance.

Yet blunter fare was on the menu as well. Although Metheny launched the second part of the show with a very pure riff-trading session with Mexican drummer Antonio Sanchez, followed by interpretations of two pretty pieces from the group’s early days, the perhaps inevitable arena-rock tendencies eventually crept in. A half-hour segment of heavy grooves and frantic guitar jams under cascading concert lights enthused the Metheny faithful, who rewarded their idol with murmurs of anticipation at the start of each song and standing ovations at the end.

The whole smorgasbord, which also included furious instrument- switching by all the players as well as some of the odd, abstract vocal harmonies characteristic of Metheny’s 1990s work, edged dangerously toward overload.

Mercifully, Metheny slowed the pace again with a final series of studies in which Vu and Maret in particular, having been all but drowned out in the chaos, got a second chance to expound. Then the lights came up, an immense ovation began, and the band struck up once more in all its fury.