It's been five years since the Pat Metheny Group recorded at full force--that is, as a sextet with trumpet, extra percussion, and wordless vocals. In the interim the lineup has undergone an overhaul. Not only has longtime drummer Paul Wertico left to concentrate on his own fire-breathing trio, but Metheny has brought in two of the more distinctive personalities in modern music: Cameroonian bassist and percussionist Richard Bona, who's also an angel-voiced singer, and Vietnamese trumpeter Cuong Vu. On the new Speaking of Now (Warner Brothers), the leader's guitar work rather improbably continues to deepen and expand--"improbably" because he already wields the most lyrically intense solo style of his generation (and one of the most organized and cogent in the history of jazz). His idiosyncratic use of the guitar synthesizer has further matured too, yielding improvisations that sound both natural and otherworldly. What's more, Metheny and his alter ego, pianist Lyle Mays, have seamlessly stitched the new lineup to the old, creating an album that fits comfortably into their ambitious "all-hemisphere" repertoire. But this is a bit of a disappointment for those of us who'd hoped the fresh blood might signal a new direction for Metheny's explorations: Cuong Vu has performed much more forward-looking music under his own name (notably on the 2000 Knitting Factory disc Pure), and Bona's two U.S. albums display a sophisticated and highly individual fusion of African and American pop musics. Metheny also has a rebel streak of his own, however, displayed in collaborations like 1986's Song X (with Ornette Coleman) and 1997's The Sign of 4 (with British free-music pioneer Derek Bailey). Though he's always considerate of what a particular audience has come to hear, he loves to throw a wild card or three into his legendarily lengthy concerts, and I expect he'll find a way to bring out the adventurous side of this lineup onstage. Friday, March 8, 8 PM, Cadillac Palace Theatre, 151 W. Randolph; 312-977-1700 or 312-902-1400.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Michael Jackson.