The idyllic concept of angels plucking on harps in heaven is overdue for an overhaul. One possible update is the image of Pat Metheny bent over a guitar. As an audience of about 700 were reminded Thursday at Liberty Hall, Metheny creates extraordinarily celestial sounds.
Metheny has never been reluctant to embrace beauty. Gorgeous music has been a consistent element of the Lee's Summit native's repertoire since he began creating waves on the jazz scene in the 1970s. Thursday's hour-and-45-minute performance was exceptionally rapturous even by his standards. The hushed mood of the prolific musician's current album What's It All About set the evening's tone. Metheny imbues pop trifles like The Association's "Cherish" with revelatory meaning on the project. Metheny's rendition of "And I Love Her" on Thursday bestowed the substance of a Johann Sebastian Bach composition on the ballad by the Beatles.
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Metheny was joined by bassist Larry Grenadier, a frequent collaborator with a similarly unabashedly romantic streak. Rather than alternating solos, the duo explored the lovely melody of "James" simultaneously. Their playfully competitive interaction resembled a pair of race car drivers trading the lead on a treacherous but scenic road. The concert offered many such thrills for aficionados of masterful musicianship, but the pair's playing contained such extraordinary emotional resonance that members of the audience without an inherent interest in technical expertise were entertained. Unlike many celebrated guitarists, Metheny usually resists the urge to show off. His solo rendition of "Find Me In Your Dreams" was achingly beautiful. Only a brief experiment on a 42-string guitar seemed like a gratuitous display of virtuosity.
The unadorned performance was so riveting that the introduction of Metheny's orchestrion midway through the concert initially seemed unwelcome. An stunningly ambitious concept, Metheny and a team of inventors created a sort of mechanical orchestra. Metheny spent much of last year touring with the orchestrion in support of an accompanying album. On Thursday, Grenadier maintained a steady pulse as Metheny activated the massive contraption's panoply of synthetic drones and organic percussion. Corresponding lights identified which components were being manipulated. The marvelously captivating effect resembled the control panel of a desolate spacecraft.
Metheny's orchestrion has no equivalent in jazz, rock, classical or electronic music. The same can be said of the creator of the wholly original device. Metheny remains endlessly inventive.