Guitarist Pat Metheny on Tuesday night enveloped a Jackson Hall crowd at UC Davis’ Mondavi Center in a generous swath of the bright modern jazz he has mastered.
With his strong, cohesive Unity Group, Metheny touched on tunes from throughout his consistent and sometimes surprising career in a polished two-hour, 40-minute intermission-free show, which never flagged.
Bookended by the artist’s solo guitar (first on his striking 42-string double-necked Pikasso guitar and for the final tune a nylon six-string), the performance showcased Metheny’s many strengths, particularly his accessible compositions pairing bright, rhythmic melodies with compelling, insistent grooves.
Metheny’s music has always had a driving pulse. His early hit “Are You Going With Me?” (performed here as an encore) has an undeniable, shuffling tension that Metheny’s signature distorted guitar lines soar over in sequenced grandeur.
Even when Metheny carefully colors space with neutral atmospherics, as he often does, a beat will bubble up from drummer Antonio Sanchez or bassist Ben Williams. Metheny and saxophonist Chris Potter knowingly latch on, never failing to ride it out.
There’s a repeating dramatic structure built into songs such as “Come And See” and “Roofdogs” from 2012’s “Unity Band,” yet Potter’s gritty solos on tenor and soprano were still mysterious and unexpected.
Metheny makes grander statements that reflect the anthemic nature of his music, especially the recently released “Kin.”
Throughout the evening performance, Metheny deftly switched guitars between various acoustic and electronic instruments, teasing out washes of sound and then finding strong melodic lines inside those spaces.
The band played a continuous 45-minute suite from “Kin” with multi-instrumentalist Guili Carmassi adding mostly electronic background textures and voice accents.
Metheny also nodded to his less-conventional work from the album “80/81,” which had earned him critical dimension and standing. He recorded that album with great bassist Charlie Haden, who died Friday. Acknowledging from the stage that music from that record would have a particular resonance for the band, Metheny and group played two tunes, “Folk Song #1” and “The Bat.”
Also performed was the song “Police People” from the “Song X” album Metheny made with avant-garde composer-saxophonist Ornette Coleman and Haden on bass.
After a set of duos with each band member, Metheny reached deep into his songbook for the closer, “Have You Heard” and the first encore, “Are You Going With Me?”
The hastily arranged show – announced just two weeks ago – drew a crowd of about 750 and served as a dry run for the band, which has been rehearsing in Davis for two days before heading out on an extensive tour through Northern California and Japan.
In the second half of the show, when the band played the newer music, a set and backdrop were revealed. Musical machines like the inside of pianos turned on their sides formed a small wall behind the band. Large shelves on each end held old bottles as if rescued from an archaic chemistry lab.
The interesting effect was nearly superfluous considering how overwhelming and satisfying the music was.