Pat Metheny has been playing guitar for 50 years, from a 15-year-old prodigy to his 65-year-old self, tonight at the Auckland Town Hall. And while the body is showing signs of age, the head and face, with his trademark unruly mop almost hiding a young man’s face, perpetually screwed up, eyes closed in ecstasy, breaking out in smiles of appreciation at the nuances in his bandmates’ notes, maybe he has found the elixir of life, eternal youth, and the secret lies in the strings.
I don’t know how to write about jazz, certainly not the technical or free form aspects, but I do know how I feel about the sound and the music, and Pat Metheny has featured in my collection for nigh on forty years. I have seen him a couple of times before, somewhere in Europe, and so I have a fair idea of what to expect on this his only second visit to New Zealand. Metheny is less of an artist than a landscaper, and we the audience are eagles, falcons, hawks, soaring over his landscapes looking down in awe and wonder as he takes us on his topographic journeys across the vast plains and mountain river valleys of his youth, and of his imagination. A touch of Spain. And occasionally the perspective of a sparrow as he hunches over his acoustic guitar and gently picks out a melody, well, less of a melody than a tune. Like Always and Forever.
The stage set up is different, and I’m up close and above, looking down on the band, where I strain to see the piano, but am directly opposite the drums, facing sideways. The pianist has his back to the audience, and the bass player is at the back, facing forward. But of course, they are in a perfect circle around their leader, watching his every mood, interpreting his every expression, and following his fingers on the fret.
It’s a night of some new music, but mostly a journey back through his catalogue which makes this such a special night. We may know some of the tunes, he suggests as he introduces himself, but then again they have become so convoluted………. So that’s what he does…..he convolutes, behind those closed eyes, which means complex, and difficult to follow, as well as intricately folded, twisted or coiled. Therefore, don’t try to identify, just close your own eyes, and be transfixed and transported. And So May It Secretly Begin. Yes, much of his music is a secret, and here we are, being let in.
The songs are often recognisable if not identifiable, but my vinyl collection will surely be tested as I sense sounds from 1983’s Travels (Phase Dance, Farmer’s Trust, Song For Bilbao), 1987’s Still Life (Talking) (Minuano, So May It Secretly Begin) and 1989’s Letter From Home (Have You Heard, Slip Away, Letter From Home). There’s a tune from an album with John Scofield, and many more, and there’s no setlist, but I will share the one published from a week ago in Singapore, because I am told at the sound desk that tonight is very similar (which means not the same).
He stops after an hour and a quarter, and introduces his band: Antonia Sanchez on drums, Linda May Han Oh on upright bass (and electric bass for the finale), and Gwilym Simcock on piano, foils to his improvisational style, partners in the weaving of magic, and brilliant musicians in their own right.
Solos in a rock setting are often indulgences, but in ethereal jazz they are more de rigeur, and tonight we get two or three opportunities to see the individuals do their own thing, but often with Pat still there, while the other two respectively retire, thus leaving us still with a sense of an entire band even though there are only two musicians on the stage. Because Pat’s guitar is an orchestra. And in this way, the solos are more easily integrated into the flow. And the musicians are extraordinarily good.
I mentioned Pat’s guitar. But there are several. First up we have the strange creature from the swamp, a custom-made thing called Pikasso, with two necks, one conventional, one short, and no less than 42 strings. Strings on the necks, one six, the other twelve, strings on the tail block which can be plucked like a harp, and strings bisecting the body and set vertically. Amazing. He opens with it (Pikasso Guitar Intro). Then we have the Ibanez 6 and 12 string electrics, which he uses most during the concert. But what I can identify most with is the Roland guitar synthesiser, which, when you listen to his music, sounds more like a horn section than guitar. But seeing is believing. And then there is his style. Fluid. More of a caress than a pick, although he used one at least once tonight.
Convoluted. Intensely. Passionately. There is no question that this is a man whose great passion is his music. Who takes visible delight in the subtleties in the solos and the extended movements of his band and their individual efforts, subtleties which soar over our head, but of which he is only too aware. And which of course translate into the variations and improvisations in his own playing. The myelin coating which protects the nerve signals from his brain to his fingers must be several millimetres thick, one might surmise.
The sound is immaculate, the audience is enthralled, and even Pat seems happy with the overall ambiance of the evening.
Perfect night in Auckland. Come back soon.
Sample Setlist (Singapore March 2nd)
- Pikasso Guitar Intro
- So May it Secretly Begin
- Bright Size Life
- Have You Heard
- Slip Away
- The Red One
- Farmer’s Trust
- Tell Her You Saw Me
- Everything Explained
- Unity Village
- Phase Dance
- Question and Answer
- (Maybe) Minuano/Midwestern Night’s Dream/Omaha Celebration/Letter From Home/Last Train Home
I think we got most of these tunes, but it doesn’t matter, it’s the journey that counts !!
Radio 13 thanks and credits Trevor Villers with all the images in this review.