Pat Metheny is indisputably a pioneer in the fading world of jazz musicians. What goes along with that accolade is a collection of traits both good and bad. He has approached the instrument in a way that is unique, and plays with an identifiable voice that is signature and somewhat comforting. But he is a restless artist, always searching for some new, elusive experience and expression in music that he hasn’t found yet. That makes him evolutionary, which at times is inspiring, and other times maddening.
Some of his most magical musical releases have been followed up by ones that are rather unlistenable. When Metheny is at his melodic best, in particular when he recorded as “Pat Metheny Group” with Lyle Mays, he is untouchable as a composer and performer. But it’s dangerous to recommend the music of Pat Metheny to the uninitiated, because without a guided tour or careful playlist, the territory covered could range from the most serene delicate acoustic playing, to the most avant-garde and experimental noise making mess you’ve ever heard. Or one of many points in between. Metheny hates labels and the path he has forged reflects his disdain for such limitations. He is the only artist to have won Grammys in 10 different categories (20 overall, including at least in each of four different decades).
As a result, every time I see Metheny play live, it’s something different than before. On his current “Side Eye” tour, Metheny is on the road with two younger masterful musicians whom he has selected to play with to give exposure and a bit of mentoring. It’s pretty much a “giving back” to what he experienced when he came up through the ranks in his teens as a wide-eye Missouri kid with a respect for the greats but a commitment to sound unlike them.
True to form, Metheny’s set list covered a broad span of musical styles and vibe. Even the songs that are most accessible have been reinterpreted in this trio setting, with dramatically different tempos, making them seem like distant cousins to the familiar originals, such as “Have You Heard?” and “Better Days Ahead.” With a trio of drums guitar and keys, it was easy to think this show would sound hollow or lacking in depth, but such was not the case.
The gig opened with a swinging duet between Metheny and New Orleans drummer Joe Dyson. “Turnaround” is an Ornette Coleman cover that gave Dyson a chance to flash some chops and play back and forth off of Metheny’s playing. As a composition, it walks the line between passages of improv and predictable structure, and served as a cool opener leaving no doubt that this is a spontaneous jazz performance that would be at home in a small, smoky jazz club.
After introducing Dyson in this opener, Metheny followed it up with a duet with the unconventional and multi-talented James Francies, who covered a lot of sonic ground on the piano and numerous keyboards that surrounded him. Their reworking of “Have You Heard” from Metheny’s classic “Letter From Home” record was dramatically slower and slinkier than the original, and interesting in both its differences and similarities to the original. Out of the gates, Francies demonstrated a prowess and creative approach to the piano, synths and keys that hinted at why Metheny introduced him saying he had very few words to adequately describe the talent that is Francies.
Having played a duet with each of his “side men,” the three then jumped in a unique version of “So May It Secretly Begin” from Metheny’s Grammy award winning “Still Life (Talking)”, which won a Grammy for Best Jazz Fusion Performance back in 1987.
This was followed up by a tune from Metheny’s first solo recording, the title track of “Bright Sized Life.” On record, the track features very prominent fretless bass work performed by the legendary Jaco Pastorius. One would expect this to be notably missing in the format of a trio with no bass player, but Francies deftly recreated the bottom end with his left hand on a credible synth patch while continuing to play piano and keys with his right. It was an energetic show of both dexterity and innovative reinterpretation that was highly musical and entertaining.
The trio then moved its way into laid back territory with a dreamy, more nuanced version of “Better Days Ahead,” that featured a lot of cymbal splashery from Dyson and some delicate touches from Metheny. Francies took a sprawling organ solo that added something new to the classic and displayed his considerable abilities. The talent of Francies was undeniable, but it must be said that the presence of the late Lyle Mays, who accompanied Metheny on most of his most accessible and arguably best recordings, was missed. Mays passed away in 2020 and much like Kevin Moore of Dream Theater, while Mays’ parts might now be played by someone with more technical capacity, the feel, tone and musicality of Mays will likely never be replicated. Mays was a kindred musical soul to Metheny and he brought out things in Pat that many fans lament will never be heard again on record, this writer among them.
Still, Metheny’s approach to music has always been looking forward, not backward, and this new trio show is certainly a new chapter in watching Metheny play live.
The swing returned with a cover of Michael Brecker’s “Timeline,” that featured some classic Metheny stylings and busy work on a single string, lots of bebop chords and another few minutes of “cool” with both Metheny and Francies making the most of their soloing opportunities.
Metheny’s “Always and Forever” was another display of touch and tone, with an incredibly delicate vibe of a late-night rain soaked street that could lull one to sleep but resists being boring with its tasteful playing.
Such was the ebb and flow of the setlist, like spending a few nights on a sailboat at sea, one moment serene at sunset, another racing in broad daylight, another terrifying chaotic as stormy waves threaten to capsize the boat. Metheny brought out a diverse range of acoustic and electric guitars to suit the moods he summoned, even playing a mind boggling 42-string Pikasso guitar that produced so much music from one massive conglomeration of wood and metal string that one had to double take if it was all coming from one man.
The serenity was soon shattered by another moment in the evening, when Metheny transferred to a purple electric guitar that put out Pat’s signature synthetic electric sound, that one might liken to a trumpeting elephant. Metheny went off on this solo, seemingly getting lost in the music for a while and blasting a pyrotechnic segment of soloing that brought the audience to its feet and was just such a contrast to the subtle moments of previous songs. Metheny even incorporated a very mini version of his Orchestrion concept on a couple tunes, with vibraphone and percussion instruments playing alongside like a player piano triggers its keys.
Massive range. That’s what you get in a Pat Metheny show. An expansive outpouring of textures and tones and tunes that approach the guitar as an instrument unlike anybody else. Even if you’re not a fan of jazz, it’s an experience any guitar player or lover of musicianship should at least take in once in a lifetime.
Even the encore, which began with a peaceful and trance-inducing solo acoustic medley of many of Pat’s most loved melodies like “Last Train Home,” “This Is Not America” and “Minuano (Six Eight)” was blown apart by a fantastic, rousing rendition of “Are You Going with Me?” which never fails to entertain and bring out some of Metheny’s best lead playing, and was a perfect exclamation point on a very wide-ranging night of music.
The crowd was loud, the house was full, and the jazz loving mature crowd in Boulder left somewhat awestruck and exhausted by the flurry of notes and tension created on stage by Pat Metheny and his side eye guys. He is truly one of the last great ones from another era, and absolutely worth seeing live when he comes into town, no matter who he’s playing with that time around.
PAT METHENY Setlist:
Turnaround (Ornette Coleman cover) / Have You Heard (Pat Metheny Group song) / So May It Secretly Begin (Pat Metheny Group song) / Bright Size Life / Better Days Ahead (Pat Metheny Group song) / Timeline (Michael Brecker cover) / Always and Forever / When We Were Free (Pat Metheny Trio song) / Message to a Friend (Charlie Haden & Pat Metheny cover) / Trigonometry / It Starts When We Disappear / Into the Dream / Zenith Blue
Medley: Minuano (Six Eight) | As It Is | September Fifteenth | The Sun In Montreal | Midwestern Nights Dream | Antonia | This Is Not America | Last Train Home / Are You Going With Me? (Pat Metheny Group song)