Pat Metheny Unity Band at the Dakota, 9/4/12

Pat Metheny's Unity Band sent folks home happy last night.
Pat Metheny's Unity Band sent folks home happy last night.

Pat Metheny Unity Band
The Dakota, downtown Minneapolis
Late night set, Tuesday, September 4

The last couple times he's been in town, jazz master Pat Matheny has played in larger venues Orchestra Hall and the Fitzgerald Theater. So it was a real treat to see him in the cozier confines of the Dakota playing with his first sax-centric combo in 30 years. Metheny, in fact, told the crowd that it was his first time ever playing at the Dakota. "I've heard great things about this place from everyone," he said.

Metheny is a Missouri native, and his sound has always retained a subtly Midwestern twang. Last night, he was backed by a collection of powerhouse modern jazz musicians -- saxophonist Chris Potter, drummer Antonio Sanchez, and young bassist Ben Williams. The synchronicity between Metheny and Potter in particular is truly something to behold -- they both seem to hear their way around scales in a similar way, meaning Potter's soloing sounds like an extension of Metheny's, and vice versa.

The setlist was heavy on material off Metheny's new Unity Band album. That may have disappointed the folks hoping to hear some Pat Metheny Group classics, but the new compositions fit the Unity Band like a glove. Williams leaves plenty of space with his pleasantly sparse playing, which provides an ample foundation for Sanchez's unbelievably effortless-looking Latin flourishes. The tunes are jazzy enough for Potter's New York City-style jazz blowing and flexible enough to accommodate Metheny's unique blues- and rock-influenced guitar sound.

Metheny has always has a polarizing nerd-at-Guitar-Center-who-is-just-too-good aspect to his playing and composing, and that was on display in the latter part of his late-night set, which featured a lengthy orchestrion piece. What's an orchestrion, you ask? It's essentially a custom-made orchestra featuring real instruments but no actual musicians controlled by Metheny with a system of triggers. As an exploration of what's possible, Metheny's orchestrion is a cool thing to see in person, but it seemed a bit masturbatory to have Sanchez and the rest of the flesh-and-blood jazz talent struggle to play along with an inflexible and unbreathing virtual orchestra.

But it's Pat Metheny's world, and when you're as talented and accomplished as he is, you can do what you want. Armed with fresh compositions and a peerless backing band, Pat Metheny's Unity band is probably the hottest ticket in jazz today, and the Dakota is fortunate to host them. If you didn't make it last night but enjoy jazz (or virtuoso guitar work), tonight's show is highly recommended.

The crowd: White, middle-aged, and rich. Tickets run $50 a pop, so what do you expect, a bunch of dirty-looking hipsters running around? That said, the crowd was into it and fun loving. Two horseshoe-haired men in front of us even went as far as spontaneously high-fiving during a couple of the more epic tension-and-release passages. Consider it moshing, Pat Metheny-style.

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