Metheny Quartet Plays SFJAZZ, Extends Guitarist’s Reach


Gwilym Simcock (left), Pat Metheny, Linda Oh and Antonio Sanchez perform at the SFJAZZ Center on Sept. 8.

(Photo: Courtesy Scott Chernis)

SFJAZZ launched its 2016–’17 season with a members-only Opening Night gathering on Sept. 8. The four-hour event conveyed the mood of a less crowded gala—with far fewer ball gowns and no tuxedos—hosted at an impressively large home with appetizers, drinks and small post-concert desserts.

The festivities commenced with the official unveiling of a photography exhibit by the late Jim Marshall. Oversized shots of jazz greats (including Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins and current SFJAZZ Resident Artistic Director Mary Stallings) covered the windows of the vacant San Francisco Unified School District building, which sits opposite of the east side of the San Francisco Jazz Center.

The photo exhibit, comprised primarily of portraits from 1960s, succeeded two previous installations of iconic Herman Leonard images.

Whether implicit or explicit, the theme of the night seemed to be “connections.” For example, the two guitarists who played opening-week residencies—Pat Metheny and Julian Lage—have both spent time in vibraphonist Gary Burton’s band. Metheny was presenting his new quartet in its North American debut in Miner Auditorium, while Lage did two sets in the Joe Henderson Lab with his trio of double bassist Jorge Roeder and drummer Kenny Wollesen.

When SFJAZZ Founding and Executive Artistic Director Randall Kline was making his customary introductory remarks, he noted other connections to Opening Night both in the audience and throughout the 2016–’17 schedule. Guitarist Nels Cline, who has recorded and toured with Lage, was in attendance. (He was in town with rock band Wilco, whose extended run at the legendary Fillmore conveniently included an off night.)

The “family of Pat” would be well represented over the course of the upcoming season, Kline went on to say. Bassist Christian McBride, who was in Metheny’s most recent trio with drummer Antonio Sanchez, is another of this season’s Resident Artistic Directors and will be at the Center from Sept. 21–25 in four different settings.

Drummer Brian Blade, who also toured with Metheny in a trio setting (with double bassist Larry Grenadier) will be at the Center in numerous settings as well: with pianist Chick Corea; with guitarists Joel Harrison and Wolfgang Muthspiel; and as a member of the Still Dreaming collective with saxophonist Joshua Redman (another Metheny associate), cornetist Ron Miles and bassist Scott Colley.

Pianist Brad Mehldau, who recorded both a duo and quartet album with Metheny, will be performing his Highway Rider album in early October with a quintet and local orchestra.

Even though he was making his SFJAZZ Center debut on Sept. 8, Metheny was a familiar sight as he sauntered onto the bandstand. Sporting a blue striped T-shirt, black jeans and black boots, he opened the show unaccompanied on his elaborate, 42-string Manzer Pikasso guitar.

At first picking the instrument’s main neck, he moved on to pluck bass lines on another while soloing with his typical melodicism. He moved to strum the harp neck and even tapped on the body for a percussive effect, demonstrating that he could play the whole night without accompaniment.

As Metheny segued into the next piece, he was quickly joined by double bassist Linda Oh. Sanchez, who was seated in nearly the exact spot where he performed the score for a screening of Birdman at the Center in late August 2015, joined in after a few measures.

Interestingly, pianist Gwilym Simcock was laying out in the beginning—as seemed to be the case with a few other pieces where the trio of Metheny, Oh and Sanchez locked in before he began playing.

In this young ensemble, Sanchez is a veteran, having played with Metheny since 2000 in the guitarist’s trio and Unity Band. He rallied his bandleader throughout the night with flowing yet economical solos that glided across his many toms and a confident and stylish rhythmic foundation at other times.

Alternating between soulful, thoughtful and outright thumping playing, Oh was an ace match to Metheny’s joyful explorations and considerate comping. Simcock’s endlessly flowing ideas matched his bandleader’s output, and his accompaniment (sometimes hard to hear for those sitting near Sanchez’s drum kit) was sublime.

Metheny used several axes in his guitar arsenal during the 15-number night—electric, acoustic and MIDI instruments all made appearances. About halfway through the night, he stopped to address the crowd at length for the first and only time.

He pointed out that this performance was the group’s first date playing together since a European summer tour ended in July. They were playing music that went back to his earliest days all the way up through the 2014 Unity Group album, Kin (Nonesuch).

Toward the end of the night, he performed duets with each of his band members—Oh and then Simcock and then Sanchez. It was an ideal way to hear his relationship with each of the ensemble’s members, and it was particularly rewarding to hear Simcock shine, as his playing was occasionally lost in the group’s sonic mix.

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