I Was There When: Pat Metheny Began His Rise to Stardom

The Gary Burton Quartet:  Burlington Memorial Auditorium, 3/3/77

Pat Metheny Group: R.W. Hunt Mill and Mining Company, 4/13/78

Even for fans who’ve followed Pat Metheny for decades, it’s difficult to envision him as an elder statesman of the international jazz community. His perpetually-smiling, youthful visage under the shock of long hair belies the depth and diversity of experience he’s accumulated over nearly a half-century. During that time, Burlington Vermont has become a regular tour stop for the Missouri native, a long-term relationship begun through two markedly different concerts in the Queen City, within fairly close proximity to each other in both time and space.

Fairly unheralded but beginning to make a name for himself, the guitarist and composer was still a member of the Gary Burton Quartet when that group appeared in the drafty and time-worn  Memorial Auditorium. Hardly a likely spot for a jazz combo, the venerable venue quickly became permeated with the warmth of music centered on the ensemble’s ECM recording of the time, Passengers. 

The opening cut of that LP, Chick Corea’s “Sea Journey,” in fact encapsulated the sound of the foursome. Metheny’s liquid lines flowed around the pinpoints of sound bouncing from Burton’s mallets, while the fluidity in the drumming of Dan Gottlieb correlated with the guitar (little wonder he would become one-fourth of the first PMG in the next year). All this action occurred between Metheny’s frequent departures from the stage when he wasn’t called upon to solo: a casual observer might wonder about those absences, but the truth of the matter derives from reliable sources who state Pat was suffering the ill effects of the flu that early March night. 

Still, whatever symptoms afflicted him didn’t detract from the expertise of his playing. On the contrary, Metheny fully complemented the mallet-work of the bandleader: Burton exuded grace in both his playing and his presence that easily compensated for what might otherwise have been distractions that might’ve interrupted the flow of the musicianship.

In contrast to that superficially unsettling but ultimately memorable performance, the arrival of the original Pat Metheny Group at Hunt’s slightly more than a year later was even more notable. Having had its eponymous debut album on regular rotation for some time at the University of Vermont student radio station, WRUV, the appearance of the quartet caused a palpable stir of anticipation within the cozy confines of the lower Main Street club, so much so the buzz was readily apparent throughout the different levels of capacity seating.

It was thus only appropriate that Metheny, keyboardist Lyle Mays, bassist Mark Egan, and the aforementioned Gottlieb began the early show (of two that night) with “Phase Dance,” Having become something of a theme song in the weeks leading to PMG’s appearance in the Green Mountains, it conjured an air of balmy inclusivity that only deepened as the single set went on: the bandleader certain took the majority of solos, but in a mark of humility that would become a trademark during his career (actually begun on his first two solo albums, Bright Size Life and Watercolors), he allowed spotlights for each member of the quartet on numbers like “San Lorenzo.” 

Thus extending such material beyond the mere snapshots captured on the studio recording, the Pat Metheny Group displayed an accessible generosity of spirit. It was an ambiance fully in keeping with the very close quarters of The R.W. Hunt Mill & Mining Company (as it was formally and facetiously named), a congenial air that ultimately became familiar in the space no matter who was playing on a given night. 

Metheny and company set a tone for this now-defunct venue that endured for virtually the entirety of its near-decade of its existence. Now the location of the Vermont Comedy Club, Hunt’s hosted the disparate likes of among many others, former members of The Byrds (McGuinn, Clark & Hillman), jazz icon Phil Woods, and eventually  Phish (regularly if not so often as at Nectar’s). It was as tempting to visit just to enjoy the room as the artist(s) on the bill.

Pat would subsequently visit Burlington (and the surrounding area including the Barre Opera House in 2017) with a variety of presentations over the years to come. Whether with a trio alongside bassist Christian McBride and drummer Antonio Sanchez or his uber-experimental one-man show The Orchestrion Project, he would confess more than once to a habit of choosing the city as an early tour stop precisely because of the friendly welcome he could count on: his comfort in front of its audiences would assuage any stage fright he might otherwise encounter as he embarked on one of his global jaunts. 

Not coincidentally, the reciprocal connection had its seeds in one of this prolific musician’s last roles as a sideman and one of his first as a leader. As Metheny became an icon of modern jazz over the decades, as much through his ambition as his multiple Grammy Awards, his loyalty to audiences like the raucous one at his 2018 Flynn Center show hasn’t waned any more than his followers devotion to him.

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