The Unity Sessions works as both epilogue and re-examination for guitarist Pat Metheny. It chronicles the seemingly completed chapter of the jazz journeyman’s Unity Band, the traditionally designed quartet Metheny convened over a three-year period that constituted one of his few extended stays in an ensemble with a saxophonist; in this case the versed tenor and soprano sax stylist Chris Potter.
During its concentrated period of activity, the Unity Band cut two studio albums (2012’s Unity Band and 2014’s Kin) and toured extensively. The Unity Sessions would seem, at first, an obligatory concert chronicle of the group’s performance history. But it’s far from a conventional live album. Instead, Metheny gathered the band (which, from Kin onward, had grown to a quintet with the addition of pianist Giulio Carmassi) at the black-box style 52nd Street Project in New York City after all touring duties were complete and cut The Unity Sessions live without an audience.
Such an approach can’t help but raise a few eyebrows. With the energy of a concert crowd absent, isn’t the live recreation of these tunes, the majority of which were pulled from the relatively recent Unity Band studio records, a study in redundancy?
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There is often astonishing growth revealed in these performances, especially ones from the first Unity Band set. Roofdogs, for instance, simply blooms with the sonic torrent of Metheny’s synth guitar roaring over an elastic rhythm section piloted by drummer Antonio Sanchez (the only player here whose stay with Metheny predates the Unity Band). But it’s just as apparent on Kin’s title tune, which allows Metheny to play off of both the lyrical wail of Potter’s tenor charge and the still-novel backdrop of the Orchestration, the solenoid-triggered, Rube Goldberg-like instrument/contraption that creates multiple wind and keyboard sounds that nicely tag along with Potter as he switches to tenor.
The overview aspect to The Unity Sessions comes from revisiting 1980s-era pieces that represent the few other instances when Metheny collaborated with saxophonists. The first is Police People, a car chase-like 1986 work with Ornette Coleman that turns out to be a vehicle for Sanchez’s furious playing. That leads into Two Folk Songs #1, first cut in 1980 with Michael Brecker, which unfolds with a lyrical feel very much in line with Metheny’s classic ECM albums. But bassist Ben Williams gets the run of the tune before Potter lets loose on tenor as the music accelerates.
Metheny saves the most absorbing overview for himself, though, with an 11-minute solo feature dubbed simply Medley that opens and closes with snippets of his best-known works from the Pat Metheny Group days (Phase Dance and Last Train Home). It’s a quietly but gloriously emotive nod to the distant past that sits within the broader portrait of the recent past that The Unity Sessions beautifully captures.