An artist without limitations, Pat Metheny is one of the most consistently compelling musicians of our time.
The Lee’s Summit native is widely admired for his pastoral folk, ferocious jazz fusion, caustic free improvisations, breezy smooth jazz and technical innovations. Metheny touched on each of those elements Thursday before an audience of about 550 at the Folly Theater.
The brilliantly entertaining evening ranged from the sublime to the surreal. During the strangest segment, Metheny pitted his all-star band against automated extensions of his mind. Layer by layer, Metheny carefully constructed a song by sending signals to a reduced version of the elaborate one-man band he calls an orchestrion.
The startling concept was made even odder when the musical robots were joined by saxophonist Chris Potter, bassist Ben Williams and drummer Antonio Sanchez. The artistic and intellectual implications of the uneasy alliance are breathtaking.
The bizarre sequence was immediately followed by three straightforward duets. The innovative Potter was Metheny’s first partner. The pair’s rigorous workout stretched “All the Things You Are” to the standard’s breaking point. A monstrous sense of swing characterized Metheny’s duet with Williams. It was followed by a percussive pairing with the aggressively insistent Sanchez.
Named the Unity Band, the group of elite musicians recorded a self-titled album with Metheny that provided the majority of the concert’s repertoire.
Metheny’s immediately distinctive yet entirely unpredictable guitar work was characteristically extraordinary on new material like the frenetic “Breakdealer.” His exploratory solo on the lovely “This Belongs to You” plumbed unanticipated depths in the deceptively complex ballad.
Metheny looked as if he might jump out of his sneakers during his spiraling solo on the high-flying “Roofdogs.” His frequent solo outings included nods to the contemporary sounds of Brazil, ancient European melodies and futuristic vistas.
Metheny and Potter engaged in friendly competition during “Come and See.” Metheny’s rapturously fluid solos were bested by Potter’s burly statements on tenor saxophone.
A handful of selections from Metheny’s formidable catalog provided additional highlights. Abrasive harmolodics were applied to “Police People,” a track from “Song X,” Metheny’s 1986 collaboration with fellow jazz visionary Ornette Coleman.
The encore included an orchestrion-enhanced reading of the exquisite fan favorite “Are You Going With Me?” Like much of Metheny’s work, the composition is simultaneously sophisticated and adrenaline-inducing.
Metheny has won 19 Grammy Awards and has performed on many of the world’s most prestigious stages. Yet this concert seemed particularly inspired.
Currently in the midst of a career renaissance and accompanied by men he called “three of my favorite musicians,” Metheny may never have sounded more essential than he did Thursday at the Folly Theater.