To say this concert by legendary guitarist and innovator Pat Metheny’s Unity Group played non-stop for nearly three hours, and received a standing ovation for three encores hardly begins to convey their sheer musical genius in a spellbinding evening. Metheny, winner of three gold album awards and multiple Grammies, turned 60 this year, but could pass for 15 years younger. Opening solo on his famous double-necked guitar – one of many different guitars he played, electric and acoustic – he quickly demonstrated a steady flow of ideas and elegant tonal varieties before bringing out his basic group: saxophonist Chris Potter, drummer Antonio Sanchez and bassist Ben Williams.

They played a mixture of Metheny’s well-known numbers, mostly from his albums of the eighties. Sanchez played a solo on Police People that was a superb demonstration of crisply controlled drumming from his enlarged kit of eight cymbals plus high-hat. The pairing of Metheny and Potter – on tenor and soprano sax, bass clarinet, and flute – is one of perfect rapport and when they delivered an ultra high speed, high energy version of Roofdog, the exchanges between guitar and soprano sax reached an almost unbelievable level of symbiotic jazz improvisation. The tempo was lowered, and the emotional content altered, for a beautifully expressed version of Folk Song Number One.

Italian keyboardist Giulio Carmassi was brought on and three large frameworks were unveiled at stage rear. Two frames contained what appeared to be a deconstructed piano, vibraphone and exploded drum kit complete with sticks, mallets, cymbals, shakers, hammers and strikers of various kinds. The third had shelves of glass flasks of liquids at various levels. This is Metheney’s Orchestrion, an electronically controlled musical extension that contains lights of different colours flickering with the beat giving the performance a magical, surreal visual effect.

Towards the conclusion Metheny embarked on a series of duets with each of the others beginning with bassist Williams who interacted beautifully with the guitar, as did the drummer and keyboardist in turn. The highlight however was Potter and Metheny. At hyper high speed guitar and tenor sax interwove astonishing, improvised contrapuntal passages devolving into a quote from the standard All The Things You are. It brought the house down.

The final of three encores featured Metheny’s solo acoustic Spanish guitar traversing Espanol, edgy jazz, soul, and country blues all played with phenomenal style, innovation and technique.

Melbourne Festival
Pat Metheny Unity Group
Hamer Hall
Wed. 22nd
 by John McBeath

Editor of Jazz Australia, formerly contributor to Sydney Morning Herald and Women's Money MagazineMusic programmer and producer