The inclusion of elements from various phases of Pat Metheny’s career gives deeper meaning to the title of this DVD. The Missouri-born guitarist/composer has made himself an icon of contemporary jazz by effectively playing off the Grammy-award winning accessibility of ‘The Pat Metheny Group’ with more challenging projects such as recordings and tours with various trios, solo works and forwarding thinking concepts such as The Orchestrion Project.
The latter endeavor culminated in much the same way Metheny chose to summarize his latest campaign centered around his most recent ensemble: a film recorded in a closed environment where the impact of the music is directly focused on the observer(s) as if in the midst of the performance. And the most telling aspect of both projects’ success may not be sufficiently emphasized to the extent it should be: Steve Rodby, longtime bassist and record producer for The Pat Metheny Group from the 80’s into the new millennium acts as producer, injecting his experience as a musician into the final cut so that the immediacy of the moment permeates the video.
Filming of The Unity Sessions took place after two world tours, so the performances represent the absolute peak of the quintet’s bond as musicians .That said, for all the inspired expertise captured here, the DVD begs the question of whether Metheny is simply reworking an established formula (or formulae) established some thirty years ago under the PMG moniker. It’s helpful, then, to watch the interview segments prior to viewing the concert content to fully comprehend the ideas behind this particular release, i.e., a deliberate extension of the multiple approaches Metheny’s explored during the course of his career. In fact, to then watch the band play in the isolated environs of the 5 Angels Theater in New York conjures up an otherworldly atmosphere that intensifies the impact of the music.
Which, in turn, belies the setlist here that, along with the use of synthesizer guitar and his forty-two string Pikasso instrument, may suggest some sense Pat Metheny’s playing it safe even as new material is juxtaposed with vintage compositions Given the man’s still-youthful persona, it’s difficult to consider him an elder statesmen of modern jazz despite more than four decades of diverse experience to his credit, not to mention commercial success and the recognition of his peers; it would stand to reason, then, that a realistic challenge lie in nurturing the coalescence of a particular lineup of musicians. Thus, the use of material from throughout his career combined with new songs fully road-tested, gives him and his bandmates mutual jumping off points to fine-tune and nurture their chemistry as they learn and reinvent the songs.
That sensation of (re)discovery, echoing most clearly through the bittersweet sax of Potter and the unadorned clarity of Metheny on electric guitar (and at a couple junctures, solo on acoustic), is what ultimately earmarks The Unity Sessions, so Rodby (and director Matthew Beighley) deserves more credit for capturing that sensation so vividly. The camera cuts around the bandstand, lit in a warm combination of shadows and light, have a fluidity and rhythm that echoes that of the musicians’ interaction, amplifying the concentration they are expending as individuals and a collective. As such, The Unity Sessions refuses to become merely background sight and sound for its approximately three-hour duration.