In these turbulent times small things can provide a reassuring sense of constancy. So Pat Metheny’s arrival on stage clutching a 48-string guitar, in a striped t-shirt and jeans, with the smile of a man in his element etched on his face, relayed a sense of ‘all is well with the world’, a glowing feeling that persisted for the next two and a half hours and beyond.
This was the opening day of the EFG London Jazz Festival – an occasion that always means making a tough choice: the big opening Jazz Voice bash at the Royal Festival Hall, Manu Dibango at Ronnie’s, Groove Warriors at the Bull’s Head, Michael Janisch Band at Rich Mix, Tomasz Stanko at Cadogan Hall… But Metheny was the stellar billing: a multi-Grammy Award and Downbeat Poll winner whose gigs over the past 40 years have been marked not only by incredible musicianship, adventurous technology and great tunes but by a ferocious commitment to continued musical searching.
Joined for the current cycle of gigs by Brit Gwilym Simcock on piano, Malaysian-born, Australian-raised Linda May Han Oh on bass and 15-year Metheny associate Antonio Sánchez, from Mexico City on drums, Metheny’s tune choices were similar to those of the Ronnie Scott’s sets last year: lesser known PMG tracks, picks from his 1976 debut Bright Size Life, various Trio albums and the 1992 masterpiece Secret Story. Without a new album to promote this was Metheny enjoying himself with old tunes and finding fresh ways of playing them.
The quartet setting obviously meant we were not to be treated to the aural complexities of The Way Up – the last and perhaps greatest PMG recording, from 2005 – or the epic cuts from albums like First Circle or Imaginary Day to which pianist Lyle Mays made such a contribution. Instead, we had compositions that worked as standards: the poignant yet homely ‘Unity Village’; an exciting ‘Lone Jack’ and rocky ‘The Red One’ (first recorded with John Scofield); a reggae-ish tune that allowed Simcock to stretch out before Pat mowed us down with soaring guitar synth pyrotechnics. A rapid ‘What Do You Want?’, from Trio 99/00, followed, Metheny flitting through the rhythm changes with his trademark luminously liquid flow.
‘Better Days Ahead’ from the 1989 Letter From Home album was an ideal choice for this setting and Simcock grinned and seemed to sing his opening phrase as he set himself up for his solo. Here, he was filling Lyle Mays’ shoes with brilliance, joyfully shifting the rhythm and substituting the already complex chord sequence in waves of 10-finger sound, seemingly channelling Mays and McCoy Tyner in a lavish solo. At other times he played a subdued role; mindful perhaps of clashing with Metheny’s voicings and embellishments.
Further highlights were the heart-wrenching ‘Tell Her You Saw Me’ from Secret Story, which showcased Metheny’s astonishingly soft touch and ability to shape notes until they drop off the aural spectrum. ‘Farmer’s Trust’ was similarly magical, on acoustic guitar. One of a series of duets saw bassist Oh take the Dave Holland role on ‘Change of Heart’: what a treat to hear a live version of this gorgeous dream of midwestern Americana from the Q&A album. Oh’s sinuous playing complemented the tune so well but Metheny perhaps could have laid-off the backing chords a little more to allow the solo to come through.
If Oh’s anchoring of the set was solid, discrete and tuneful, then Antonio Sánchez’s contribution was explosive; at times sending shockwaves of awe through the auditorium at his speed and precision. The Migration band leader (current album Bad Hombre), and Birdland film score composer, has developed a sizeable a following in his own right and established himself among the world’s finest drum virtuosos. He’s also developed a telepathic understanding with Metheny, catching accents and using the full range of timbre that his superbly miked-up kit allowed, with echoes of Roy Haynes. Whereas some drum solos are the cue for a daydream, his were totally melodic and based on the song form – and demanded maximum focus from Oh and Metheny as to when to intrude. His duet was stratospheric: a garage-band rendition of ‘Q&A’ that finally entered sonic outer space.
What a shame that ticket prices for this kind of performance prevent many younger people attending; the quartet got more than one standing ovation but would have truly ignited the atmosphere at a less senior-oriented occasion, such as in a Love Supreme-style setting. Some audience members might have pined for the PMG ‘hits’ ‘Are You Going With Me’, ‘Third Wind’ and ‘First Circle’, but as with Steely Dan a fortnight ago at the 02, the group could have played a five-hour set and still not played everyone’s favourites.
Finally, Metheny brought us back to the turbulent and disturbing present with a solo medley with ‘This is Not America’ at its heart (co-written with Mays and David Bowie). He hadn’t said much on mic but this rendition was so emotionally charged that no words were needed. We knew what he meant.