Thursday’s blazing quartet performance by Pat Metheny’s Unity Band reset the limits for what you think four musicians can do. By incorporating elements of his fantastical orchestrion into the latter half of the concert and by playing the hell out of the vintage Roland GR-300 analog guitar synthesizer he has favored since the early 1980s, Metheny successfully tore down the expectations for a quartet and erected a spectacular new wall of sound in their place.
Fittingly, the keys to this transformation emanate both from within this great musician and from the extraordinary players he surrounds himself with. Drummer Antonio Sanchez has played with Metheny in multiple contexts before, but perhaps never so well. His approach on Thursday night melded the free-sounding polyrhythms of post–Elvin Jones modal bop to the precision and clarity one associates with the more traditional playing of Max Roach. On bass, Metheny newcomer Ben Williams swung with authority and blended his warm tone seamlessly with both Sanchez and the pyrotechnics of the group’s formidable front line. It’s hard to say enough about the transcendent musicianship of reedman Chris Potter. Whether on his customary tenor, on soprano sax, or on bass clarinet, Potter consistently drew out the essence of Metheny’s compositions, carving line after line of floating melody and summoning the kind of ecstatic response one associates with names like Coltrane, Coleman, Shorter, and Rollins.
The tunes were mostly drawn from the Unity Band’s recent album, although there was some delving back into the catalogue for an Ornette Coleman composition and what sounded like some snatches of Metheny’s epic collaboration with Michael Brecker and Dewey Redman on 80/81. If you care about contemporary jazz and you weren’t there, you owe it to yourself to seek out this music now.