Intense and often aggressive, Pat Metheny’s 65-minute piece “The Way Up” was played in its entirety to open his 2¾-hour show at Universal. It is as challenging a composition as Metheny and his partner, pianist Lyle Mays have, produced in their 27 years together, revisiting as it does signature Metheny melodic ideas while stretching his concepts about harmonics, the use of minimalist repetition and the blend of improv and composition.
For the recording of “The Way Up,” Metheny told Daily Variety that he practiced six to eight hours to get a handle on the piece, which is divided into four movements of nearly equal lengths. The emphasis lies squarely on his guitar — he used five different ones in the first 15 minutes — and steers relatively clear of histrionics, duets or technological hoo-ha; this is reasoned modern jazz with a foot in modern classical composition.
More than in their past work, Metheny relied on his power to push the music and use the band to build a wall of sound behind him. Mays’ role as a soloist is limited in “The Way Up,” but when he emerges as the lead voice, his passages are meaty and in line with Metheny. Trumpeter Cuong Vu is seemingly lost as a potential foil in this work; oddly, bassist Steve Rodby is asked to provide more contrast to Metheny than the trumpeter. And on the chromatic harmonica, Gregoire Maret lent a soulful touch that, more often than not, echoed the sound of Metheny’s commercially and artistically successful early work.
Much as Metheny is known for winding linear melodies, he has often ventured into rapid-fire, jagged improvs to break up the niceness of the music. He avoided that route in the new work and the music that followed it, choosing instead to veer into dark territory, which Metheny can work without attempting to break through with a beaming brightness. Metheny worked middle registers and allowed himself to tread rather than race, demonstrating that he continues to teach himself new tricks.
The 90-plus minutes after “The Way Up” were used to revisit Metheny Group classics such as “Have You Heard?,” “Are You Going With Me?” and “The First Circle.” He used the opportunity to let band members come and go, dueting with Mays or drummer Antonio Sanchez, or working a piano-bass-guitar trio. He wheeled out his acoustic Pikasso guitar, which contains more than 40 strings and produces sounds that generally come from a harp or a lute. It proved quite luxuriating.
This edition of the PMG, though, finds its most arresting character in Mexican native Sanchez, who has recorded three albums with Metheny and worked with David Sanchez, Avishai Cohen and several singers. An inventive drummer whose free-form playing is never more than a few hits away from a central beat, Antonio Sanchez was continually stimulating for the band and the audience.
The Pat Metheny Group performs April 1 and 2 at the Beacon Theater in New York.