The first thing you notice about guitarist Pat Metheny is the hair. Long and frizzy, it shoots out from his head in every conceivable direction, as if he didn’t just stick his finger in a light socket but somehow grabbed a live power cable and held onto it for about thirty years. This would explain why Metheny doesn’t appear to have cut his hair since the mid-1970s, and why his hair isn’t just hair anymore—it’s a full-blown metaphor for his entire career, a thirty-year period of constant growth that has spun off in so many different directions it’s all but impossible to keep track.
To be sure, Metheny is one of those musicians who has been around so long that his music has had time to go in and out of fashion at least four or five times. His signature brand of lyrical, melodious noodling is currently out of fashion, but judging from the ingenuity of the material presented by the current Pat Metheny Trio (which has had many incarnations) at Orchestra Hall last night, listening to him may soon be cool again.
Metheny’s star power couldn’t quite fill Orchestra Hall, but his fans turned out. In fact, he got a partial standing ovation last night just for walking onstage. He started the show on a mellow note, playing a couple of solo acoustic numbers on his baritone guitar. He then kicked it up a notch with a piece called “The Sound of Water,” which he played on his custom-made Pikasso, an instrument that combines a six-string guitar, lute, oud, bass, and zither, and looks like some sort of medieval weapon.
After these meditative journeys, Metheny welcomed to the stage his bandmates, drummer Antonio Sanchez and bassist Christian McBride, two of the most in-demand artists of the moment in the rarefied universe of jazz genius. Once Sanchez’s drumsticks started flying, the trio produced an energetic set of tight, thoughtful jazz, some of it from Day Trip, a CD scheduled for release in January, and some reaching all the way back to Metheny’s 1976 album, Bright Size Life.
Metheny isn’t the fastest guitarist around, or the most intense. What makes him great, though, is that every phrase he plays has an interesting melodic idea behind it. There are no gratuitous runs or fills, no stock licks, no safe musical harbors; Metheny is a jazz purist who believes in the value of an evolving musical conversation, and he surrounds himself with musicians who have equally interesting things to say.
Bassist Christian McBride, for instance, can make his bass talk like a cello, and he weaves through every piece intricate, unconventional lines that complement Metheny and Sanchez perfectly. On drums, Sanchez is a wizard who opens up nooks and crannies that Metheny loves to dive into and bounce off of. During a duet that did not include McBride, Metheny and Sanchez went at it so furiously that they left jazz and fusion behind and ended up somewhere in post-apocalyptic metal territory, with Metheny employing pick scrapes and distortion, and Sanchez summoning the ear-crunching gods of percussive chaos.
The trio strayed so far away from the smooth and familiar that some older folks in the crowd (who doubtless got their tickets through a package with the orchestra) decided they’d had enough and walked out.
Those of us who stayed saw a great show by three seasoned jazz musicians at the top of their game. When their new CD comes out in January, I’ll be first in line.