Guitarist and composer Pat Metheny has worked himself into an enviable position.
This year the 59-year-old Metheny was voted into Down Beat magazine’s Hall of Fame, the youngest member and fourth jazz guitarist chosen for the honor. He’s an “A list” mainstream jazz artist with 20 Grammy Awards on his mantle and a record of creative achievement that allows him to undertake any project he wants.
The original Pat Metheny Group built a consistent popular following with its second album, 1980’s “American Garage,” a Billboard No. 1 mainstream jazz album. The group’s unique sound coalesced around Metheny’s ethereal electronic guitar and the collaborator Lyle Mays’ electronic keyboards. Latin percussion and voice was added, and the group’s popularity has only been limited by Metheny’s interests in taking on other projects.
How about commissioning a modern take on the player piano with a stage full of computer-operated, custom-built acoustic instruments, all controlled by Metheny’s guitar? That was 2010’s Orchestrion Project. Metheny followed that with 2011’s “What’s It All About?” a solo-guitar album of re-imagined pop tunes, which included Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s “Alfie,” Paul Simon’s “The Sounds of Silence” and Thom Bell and Linda Creed’s “Betcha By Golly, Wow.” It was Metheny’s first record without his original compositions. If those two diverse projects suggest an artist at loose ends with his creativity, then his latest endeavor shows one who has found himself.
In 2012, Metheny formed a group called the Unity Band around his guitar and saxophonist Chris Potter, with bassist Ben Williams and drummer Antonio Sanchez. After a Grammy-winning self-titled album and world tour, Metheny and the group took some time off but reconvened to record and release another album, 2014’s “Kin.” Now called Pat Metheny Unity Group with the addition of multi-instruamentalist Giulio Carmassi, Metheny’s band comes to the Mondavi Center on Tuesday, kicking off the first leg of a new world tour.
The Kansas City, Mo., native answered questions from The Bee by email, having just returned from performing in Europe.
“I never expected this to become such a thing when we started,” Metheny wrote of the Unity Band.
“I don’t know that any of us did – it has evolved really organically, and everyone has pushed a lot of things to the side to do this. Me, too. It has really been worth it too, I think for all of us.”
Metheny described the Unity Band sound as noirish black-and-white, while that of the new Unity Group is a 3-D, full-color exploration of what the players sound like together.
“The Unity Band record and tour was great, and we all enjoyed it so much we all really wanted to keep it going. My thinking was that if we are going to do it again, I didn’t want to just do that same record again, I wanted to see what else it could be.”
Saxophonist Potter was the central figure for Metheny in putting the band together two years ago. At the time the guitarist realized he hadn’t lead an album with a saxophone player in his band since the acclaimed “80/81” recording from 1980 with the late Michael Brecker and the late Dewey Redman.
Metheny has said in the intervening time he was waiting for someone of Potter’s stature to emerge. Potter has been a major figure for the past decade, playing in the first-rate bands of both trumpeter Dave Douglas and bassist Dave Holland.
“He is one of the greatest musicians I have ever known, and every second I have been on the bandstand with him has been an absolute pleasure,” Metheny wrote.
“Besides the incredible level of musicianship that he possesses, he is one of the most professional players I have ever been around. There is no drama or insecurity – just music all the way. And he is one of the few musicians I have ever been around who has the same kind of work ethic that I do – he gets there early every night and works on music for hours in preparation for the gig,” Metheny wrote.
“There are some musicians who are talented and see themselves as some kind of natural geniuses or something because of a certain amount of natural ability – but that is ... rarely the case over the long term. I would always contend that talent is an element, but over the long run, ultimately a minor part of it all – it is mostly hard work. Chris is a perfect example of that.”
Metheny also lauds drummer Antonio Sanchez, a native of Mexico City who has been a constant in several Metheny-led groups and his “most important collaborator” for the past 15 years.
“As I often say, he is the drummer I thought would never be born,” Metheny wrote. “I feel like he can contribute to almost any project I launch. And again, his personal maturity and lack of personal drama is a huge thing for me – he shows up to play every night.”
Some of Metheny’s success could be attributed to the fact that he doesn’t think about it. His focus has always been simply on making music.
“I also never really thought or worried about the ‘music for a living’ part of it,” Metheny wrote.
“I always only wanted to play well and it is still that way. All of my attention has always been on that and that only. I think that is the only way that I could ever be.”
After several shows across Northern California next week, the band will head to Japan for a couple of weeks of concerts. Metheny wrote that it doesn’t get old in any way for him even though the musicians have played more than 200 shows together.
“I can say that every night it is a new thing and a real adventure for all of us,” he wrote.
“Every night is what it has all been leading to. Every gig is the destination. … I play each gig as if it is last time I will ever play. It is always inspiring and exciting to play.”