Then the house lights dimmed as long time members keyboardist Lyle Mays and bassist Steve Rodby came on stage and launched into Phase dance, from their self-titled 1978 debut. From there, the two other new members, trumpeter Cuong Vu, and percussionist/vocalist Richard Bona, joined the band for Proof off of their new release. One thing was apparent, even with three new band members, this was still the Pat Metheny Group. Over the years, Metheny and co-composer Mays have crafted a highly recognizable sound. Proof could be from any number of the band’s recordings. It featured lush piano/synth backgrounds layered over thick percussion, steady bass, and Metheny’s beautiful guitar skittering over the top of things. Trumpeter Vu was able to stretch out and showed himself to be a welcome addition.
In a sense, a Metheny Group concert is a two and a half hour medley featuring various solo, duo, trio, quartet, quintet, and full band settings. Players move in and out of the mix, move on and off stage as the music ebbs and flows like a musical tide. The songs often feature such Group trademarks as wordless vocals from Bona and Vu, as well as them doubling on guitars, percussion, and mallets. While the music flows, the sound is very lush and orchestrated, thickened up by Bona and Vu. As It Is demonstrates this perfectly. The music is dense, with percussion percolating in the background, while Mays blocks out piano chords, as Metheny soars across things on his synth guitar. The band built to a furious climax, breaking into a wordless vocal with Sanchez punching out strong rhythmic accents.
Next, Metheny, Rodby, and Sanchez played a gentle, Latin tinged song the showcased Rodby’s lyrical upright bass playing. Mays joined in as the band broke into double time and built to another climax. The full band joined in for another new song, The Gathering Sky. This Latin flavored song gave drummer Sanchez a chance to cut loose. He is adept at moving through style changes, pushing the band along without being obtrusive. His solo showed great technical ability, yet possessed a restraint that kept him from over playing. It’s easy to see why Metheny picked him to replace long time drummer Paul Wertico. Sanchez shows himself to be a young player to watch.
You is a gentle ballad that features the gorgeous voice of Cameroon native Bona. His voice is the perfect foil for Metheny’s guitar. Pat kept looking back at Bona, smiling his approval. Bona is a one of the hottest new musicians on the international scene. He has the uncanny ability to play any instrument put in his hands. He demonstrated that with a wide array of percussion, guitar, marimba, and his main instrument, the electric bass. Check out his SCENES FROM A LIFE CD (Columbia) to see how talented he is. Metheny had originally called him for a recommendation for a vocalist/percussionist, never thinking Bona would be interested in the position himself. It was Bona, a long time Metheny fan, who volunteered his own services.
Next, the familiar hand clap pattern of First Circle was recognized by the audience, who broke out in cheers. The quintessential Metheny Group song, it features shifting rhythms and an outstanding Mays solo. The crowd responded with the first of many standing ovations. Another classic, 1982’s Offramp, gave Vu a chance to show his stuff. A rising star on the New York underground scene, Vu employed various electronics to enhance his trumpet. He also used different techniques, playing the trumpet as a pure sound device, eliciting blowing and noise effects. With an echo unit he engaged in a call & response between his live and recorded notes. This added a decidedly different tone to things.
Bona then stepped out with just his voice and a thumb piano. The theater was quiet as Bona’s voice floated out from the stage. You can’t help but be captivated by his presence. The band went into another new song, On Her Way. Metheny then pulled out his 42 string Picasso guitar. This acoustic instrument is a hybrid of part guitar, part harp, and with a set of drone strings, part sitar. He played a duet with Vu’s trumpet, both plucking and strumming multiple sets of strings. The old favorite, Are You Going With Me, had Mays playing a "harmonica" synth solo and Metheny kicking things up a notch with burning guitar solo. The band burned right behind him and brought the crowd to it’s feet.
Afternoon is a lovely blues in six featuring Bona’s vocals again. From there a trio of Metheny, Sanchez, and Bona on bass played what was the show’s highlight, Bright Size Life from Metheny’s first record. The bassist on that recording was the late, great Jaco Patorius, who inspired a young Bona to take up the bass as his main instrument. Bona showed himself to be nimble and fleet fingered as he pulled harmonics (a la Jaco) off his strings and raced around the fret board. He has the same grace as Pastorius and his own style. Sanchez danced around the rhythms, keeping it light, yet solid. Let’s hope this trio makes a recording of their own sometime soon.
The whole band returned for The Roots Of Coincidence. This is the Group’s heaviest number. The almost hard rock tune uses driving synths with Mays and Bona both playing guitars to thicken the sound. The band drove into things with Sanchez driving the music along with some solid drumming. With smiles all around, the band received another thunderous ovation from the appreciative crowd.
Things then settled down as Metheny played a half size acoustic guitar and Mays concentrated on grand piano. Their duo, In Her Family, was a beautiful, impressionistic piece. After working together for twenty-five years, there is a deep intimacy between the two musicians. They have a wonderful rapport and a sense of joy in their playing together. Minuano (Six eight) brought back the band for a beautiful Brazilian style work out. Once again, the vocals of Bona and Vu soared above the lush backing of the band.
And that was it, with the crowd coming to there feet for an extended ovation. The band returned to play one more tune Bilbao, then the house lights returned as the satisfied crowd filtered out of the theater. If you a a Metheny Group fan, you owe it to yourself to catch the latest version of the band as they make their way across the world over the next year.