Guitarist Pat Metheny has been touring with his new Unity Band for months, racking up critical raves for his interplay with tenor saxophonist Chris Potter, bassist Ben Williams and drummer Antonio Sanchez.
But there’s something special for him about bringing the Unity Band to Kansas City, where he appears tonight at the Folly Theater. It’s the only place where people will appreciate the name of the band, he says.
“People know I’m from Lee’s Summit, and out there is Unity Village. My family has had a great friendship with the Fillmore family (the Unity founders) for close to 100 years now. And those summers spent at Unity Village were very life-forming for me.”
And there’s a connection to another Unity Band, the one that played outdoor concerts at the Unity Village amphitheater: “My big brother Mike was a trumpet soloist in the Unity Band, my dad was in the Unity Band, and I played french horn in it myself, very badly,” the guitarist says.
“This new band was put together to do a bunch of outdoor summer concerts, so somehow I made this connection, back to that amphitheater.”
Metheny even tried to make a cover for his Unity Band’s CD featuring archival photos of that other Unity Band — but the guy at the record company said, “ ‘Nobody’s going to know what this is. On the other hand, Unity Band is a great name for this project. Because your whole thing has been about unity from the beginning.’
“Really what my music is, is a way of using a lot of different kinds of material — not a mix and match, but a real, genetically unified way of thinking of music as one big thing.”
The new Unity Band is notable because it’s the first Metheny-led project since 1981 to feature the guitarist in dialogue with a powerful tenor saxophonist. Potter has become one of the most talked-about sax players in jazz, and one of the most widely studied, through his associations with people like Dave Douglas, Dave Holland and Brad Mehldau, and through his own efforts as leader.
It’s almost amazing that Potter hasn’t worked with Metheny until now.
“Chris had expressed to me a number of times over the years that he hoped we could do something together, and I’ve been a fan of his since he came on the scene with Red Rodney at a really young age. …Chris is the headline of this band to me, and just being around him night after night has been really inspiring.”
Then there’s bassist Williams. “I wanted to get somebody new in there,” Metheny says, “and I try to stay up to date on who the new guys are. I was aware of Ben from having heard him as a Juilliard student a couple of years ago. He was a student of Christian McBride, and within a few notes his playing reached out and grabbed me.”
Not too many months later, when Metheny was performing with a trio featuring McBride and Sanchez, there were a few gigs McBride couldn’t make. “I said, ‘You think that guy Ben could do it?’ Christian said, ‘Yeah. The kid’s ready.’ Like Christian said, he’s done great every night.”
The quartet is rounded out by drummer Sanchez, a familiar Metheny associate, who’s been in virtually every Metheny project involving more than one musician for more than a decade.
“I kind of keep going back to him. …There’s about 15 new drummers now, so many young guys playing great, and I still wind up with Antonio.” Metheny loves “this melodic rhythmic development thing” in Sanchez’ playing, and calls him “a very powerful, complete musician.”
That’s the new Unity Band, and they’ll have played about 100 shows before they’re done touring.
So what’s Metheny doing after that? He’s almost ready to release a film and live album from his Orchestrion tour, where the guitarist accompanied himself on a seemingly impossible array of mechanically triggered stringed and percussive things, and somehow got them all sounding like Metheny. (He’s using a scaled-down version of the orchestrion on the Unity Band tour — “We call it the chamber orchestrion.”)
And next year, he promises, the Pat Metheny Group, his decades-long collaboration with keyboardist Lyle Mays, will gear up again after a hiatus of about seven years.
But for now, the Unity Band is keeping the guitarist deeply engaged.
“Funny how sometimes you start in one place and it takes you to another,” Metheny says. “You know, that amphitheater at Unity Village is really a magical place. A couple of times on this tour, I’ve thought, ‘That was a deep thing for me. This is all connecting to that.’ ”Noteworthy
• Meanwhile, the Power Light District has its own free event, the 14th Street Jazz Festival, from 3 to 10 p.m. Saturday. With bands at streetside, it’s a less-spacious environment than the Prairie Village festival’s, but there’s plenty of musical enjoyment to be had. The lineup includes singer Darcus Gates, the New Jazz Order big band, guitarist Will Matthews and organist Bobby Floyd with special guest Bobby Watson, plus bassist James Ward’s band with singer Ron Gutierrez. (A list of set times was not provided by deadline.)
• Reed man Bob Sheppard, who’s been a major contributor to projects by Chick Corea, Billy Childs, Joni Mitchell and others, will squeeze in another gig while he’s in town for the Prairie Village festival. He’ll headline at 8 tonight at Take Five Coffee + Bar, 5336 W. 151st St. in Leawood. Take Five also has drummer Brandon Draper, keyboardist John Brewer and bassist Ben Leifer at 8 p.m. Friday; big-toned alto saxophonist Michael Shults at 8 p.m. Saturday; and a tribute to composer and bassist Charles Mingus featuring Ben Leifer and drummer Matt Kane at 7 p.m. Sunday.
• The Blue Room, 1600 E. 18th St., is making this weekend into a tribute to soul-jazz organist Charles Kynard, a former Kansas Citian who made quite a splash on the national stage and left some prized recordings with some of the baddest cats, including guitarist Grant Green and drummer Idris Muhammad, before he left the planet in 1979.
Tonight, the performers are Ken Lovern’s OJT+B, his Organ Jazz Trio plus singer Bukeka Shoals, at 7 p.m. On Friday, guitarist Will Matthews and organist Bobby Floyd perform at 8:30 p.m. On Saturday, it’s an organ tag team, with Everette DeVan and Greg Meise manning the keys and pedals at 8:30 p.m. Bassist Ben Leifer, a busy fella this weekend, is in charge of the Monday jam session, at 7 p.m.
More details of the upcoming Rhythm Ribs Jazz Blues Festival are emerging. The festival, with headliners Arturo Sandoval, Brian McKnight and Joe Louis Walker, takes place Oct. 13. By the time you read this, the full lineup should be posted on theAmericanJazzMuseum.org
The Pat Metheny Unity Band appears at 8 p.m. at the Folly Theater, 300 W. 12th St. Tickets are $35 to $100. Call 816-474-4444 or visitfollytheater.com
.Jazz in the village
You’ve got to hand it to the Prairie Village Jazz Festival organizers. They’ve put together a high-quality festival for three years in a row now, even with a rainout last year, and they’ve kept it free.
They’ve got a great location in a park, and best of all they’ve got great music again. The lineup for this year’s festival, on Saturday, is as stellar as we’ve come to expect:
The band Diverse, with some of the brightest young jazz talent in our area.
Rich Wheeler Quartet, with a leader who is the tenor saxophone soloist in some of the most exciting musical organizations in town, including the People’s Liberation Big Band and Alaturka. He has some important things of his own to say, too.
Mike Metheny Quartet, offering an all-too-rare appearance by the “other” Metheny, a flugelhornist and composer of great sensitivity, and leader of a well-chosen quartet.
Megan Birdsall Quartet, showcasing a singer who’s rapidly become a local favorite.
Bobby Watson Quartet, led by alto saxophone giant who some say is the best musician in town. You are likely to agree.
Karrin Allyson, the world-class singer who got her start here, makes the perfect headliner, this time with her road band featuring the powerful saxophonist Bob Sheppard.
The free festival is in Harmon Park, at 77th Street and Mission Road. Bring a blanket or lawn chair.