Guitarist and Lee's Summit native Pat Metheny returns on Thursday to make his hometown debut with his new group, the Unity Band. (It derives its name from the Metheny clan's longstanding affiliations with this area's very own Unity Church.) Rounded out by saxophonist Chris Potter, bassist Ben Williams and longtime Metheny drummer Antonio Sanchez, the Unity Band arrives on the heels of its eponymous new album on Nonesuch.
Live, the Unity Band's songs take on a dramatically kinetic quality, thanks in particular to Sanchez's assertive style. Also lending to the specialness of the occasion: This is the first group that Metheny has led in more than 30 years which features a tenor player. In a sense, Unity Band reopens channels that Metheny first explored on 80/81, his 1980 album with bassist Charlie Haden, drummer Jack DeJohnette, and saxophonists Michael Brecker and Dewey Redman. Metheny checked in with The Pitch last week to discuss what else is new.
The Pitch: At your Lee's Summit High School Hall of Fame induction speech in 1998, you talked about the impact that locals like your old music teacher Keith House and the Browning family had on you.
Metheny: Giving that speech at the Lee's Summit High School Hall of Fame induction ceremony was the most terrifying 20 minutes of my entire life, including playing for a billion people at Live Aid and everything else. It was quite a thing. Because so many people that I knew were there, and especially considering that my graduating from high school ... the most kind way to say it would be to say that it was a mercy graduation. I never had any grade above D — or what they used to call "I" out there, which was "Inferior" — from sixth grade on. I don't think I officially had enough credits to graduate, but they were kind enough to actually let me leave with a diploma. To go from that to actually being in the hall of fame was pretty cool.
It's not as if you haven't played with your share of saxophonists, but it has been a long time since you've featured a horn player in a band that you've led. What had you been trying to explore away from the tenor saxophone all these years with your own groups?
For me, a big element of what it means to be a musician is the whole aspect of discovery. All of my favorite musicians were really committed to trying to find alternate ways of exploring the forms they were interested in. That's been a big priority for me. Even the whole idea of just a guitar-bass-drums trio was relatively unexplored in jazz at the time that I started. There were a couple of records, but not much. With my group [the Pat Metheny Group], fistfights still break out over [the question] "What is that?" There's all these wacky words that come up, like fusion. Even the word jazz doesn't really fit well for a lot of the things about music that I'm interested in. Trying to find a voice or a point of view — not just as a player but also as a bandleader and a composer — has naturally led me to put together ensembles that were not quite conventional in the same way that a horn plus a rhythm section is conventional.
People actually get into fistfights over what labels apply to your records?
[Laughs.] Even after all this time, there's no real consensus. I actually consider that to be a really good thing. There are many musicians where it's like, "Oh, yeah, it's that record [that defines them]." With me, it's kind of equally distributed among all of the records. There's different people that like this and different people that like that. If there is any frustration in that, it's that all of those fistfights or discussions miss the point, which is that all of my releases go together. That's a much more complex idea. I hear very reduced explanations like, "Well, there's the [Pat Metheny] Group and that's the commercial vehicle." Many times, not only is that not the way it is but it's backward. I mean, the Group is probably the least easy thing for me from a financial standpoint because it's so big, as opposed to a trio, which is a lot more mobile. But the message is, in fact, the way it all goes together as one way of thinking about what music can be, rather than a bunch of little distinct side roads. It's one big road.