Pat Metheny awes Hill Auditorium

Wednesday, October 17, 2018 - 2:29pm

Pat Metheny

Pat Metheny Buy this photo

The term “virtuoso” is thrown around maybe a little more than it should be in a lot of different instrumental music scenes. Typically, when someone plays a passage with a trail of fast notes with incredible accuracy, or jumps between the outer realms of their instrument’s register in the snap of a finger, people will label that person as a virtuoso. But why isn’t virtuosity linked more with expression? Why is it linked to technicality?

There are certain musicians that I feel are virtuosos, and there are certain musicians that go beyond simply being technically proficient at their instruments. These people are truly masters of their instruments. Pat Metheny is absolutely the latter of those two.

With a career that stretches almost as many genres as it does years, Metheny has had a hand in dozens of albums, both under his name and others. He has played with some of the most legendary musicians of the 20th century, including Michael Brecker, Joni Mitchell, David Bowie, Jaco Pastorius and Gary Burton. To call someone who’s still in their mid-60s a living legend might sound like a bit of a hyperbole, but this is a special case. The University Musical Society (UMS) could not have picked a better artist to kick off their jazz series this season.

As I walked to my seat in the historic Hill Auditorium, I took note of the small quartet setup in the middle of the stage: a grand piano, a bass amplifier, a guitar amplifier and a drum set that was a little larger than ones used in traditional jazz combos. I was so used to seeing orchestras and symphonic bands fill up this hall that this setup looked a little small and foreign to me. I was curious about how a group like this would deliver in a hall as acoustically sound as Hill.

Shortly after 7:30 p.m., the lights dimmed, and out from the side of the stage walked a man with a moppy head of hair and an iconic striped t-shirt that was slightly too large for him. Despite filling Hill Auditorium to the brim, Pat Metheny seemed as cool and as casual as ever. 

I was surprised that no one else followed him, besides his guitar technician, carrying the strangest looking guitar I had ever seen in my life. With 42 strings, Pat Metheny's Pikasso guitar looked like something from Dr. Frankenstein’s musical laboratory. But before I even had time to think about this weird-looking, famous guitar, Metheny sat down and immediately started playing this instrument on what would be one of the best openings to a concert I had seen in quite a while.

Able to not only play melodies, but also accompany himself with harmonies and bass lines, Metheney kicked off the concert by himself in only a way that he could. Bringing back an introduction from his days with the Pat Metheny Unity Group, he not only demonstrated his technical talent, but also how artistic he could actually be. No situation is more exposing and revealing of this than standing in front of a full auditorium of people with just a guitar (no matter the amount of strings it has).

After this introduction, Metheny brought out the rest of the musicians, including Antonio Sanchez — one of the most prominent names in percussion and drum set today. 

With such an extensive catalogue of music, I was unsure of what sort of tunes the quartet would be performing, but I was pleasantly surprised when the group played some fan favorites from further back in his career, both as a solo artist and with the Pat Metheny Unity Group. Songs like “Bright Size Life,” “Letter From Home” and “Better Days Ahead” received loud cheers and applause from audience members within a few seconds of the melody being introduced.

The group was tight. There seemed to be a lot of communication going on between the four of them as they went through their solos, feeding off of different lines presented by each member and turning them into group motifs.

Oftentimes in jazz, I notice that while there are dynamics present, changes in dynamics only happen from piece to piece and not necessarily within one piece itself. But with Metheney, a variety of dynamic levels seemed to be extremely present within each piece. Sometimes he would lead the group into an uproar-like crescendo, and then a few bars later would bring the volume down to a barely audible level, keeping the audience on the edge of their seat.

Metheny played about four different guitars throughout the course of the night: his Pikasso guitar, his signature yellow hollow body, a Roland G-303 synth guitar and an electric nylon string guitar. Each guitar sounded incredible and had its own unique purpose. 

However, with each guitar change, came the scurrying of Metheny’s guitar tech onto stage to take his current guitar and replace it with a new one, turning what could have been a simple switch into a distraction for the audience. I know a lot of bigger bands do this with their guitar techs, but for such an intimate performance in a venue like Hill, it seemed a bit unnecessary and quite distracting. Metheny displaying the guitars on stands behind his amp would have not only made things less awkward, but also would have been nice additions to the aesthetic of the performance space.

Metheny performed two encores: one on his own, playing a medley of some of his most popular songs on acoustic guitar, weaving each familiar feeling melody into the next with ease. After Metheny left the stage, he returned with the rest of the quartet and closed with the popular “Song for Bilbao,” bringing the audience to their feet with some of the most energy put out from the band that night.

Metheny’s melodies are timeless. Even if it’s your first time hearing them, they feel familiar and distinctly pure. His music carries many emotions, but most prominently joy. These associations translated almost perfectly to a live setting, and despite a few awkward guitar changes, Metheny made a two and a half hour performance feel like a short reflection of memories and melodies.