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There are inherent advantages to being a jazz musician. Genre constraints are practically thrown out the window and almost anything is considered acceptable, no matter how free, New Age-y, rock-leaning, contemporary, ballady, or bopping. As long as integrity to the art form remains, experimentation is rewarded.
Guitarist Pat Metheny has been rewarded plenty, with 20 Grammy Awards covering a wide array of ensemble configurations — from solo efforts to large groups — and musical directions covering every known spectrum, creating a few as well. Though each album stands alone in concept, construction, and execution, these works are just another chapter to Metheny in a full life's work.
"All the records kind of blur together to me. It all feels like one big thing to me, like a book with different chapters that are moving the plot along in different ways but always about telling a story from a singular point of view," he says. "I have had a lot of different bands and groups over the years — and they all kind of continue; nothing ever feels obsolete to me. It is more a process of constant expansion for me. Each platform seems viable."
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After stepping back for a pair of acclaimed solo efforts, Metheny returned in 2010 with the Unity Band, a platform featuring a saxophone on the frontline, a setup he'd not utilized for more than 30 years.
"I think I had to wait 30 years for Chris Potter to show up!" he says. "To me, he is one of the most brilliant improvising musicians I have ever been around. Having him in the band inspires me the same way that it did when I wrote for Mike Brecker and Dewey Redman all those years ago" on 80/81.
The Unity Band's 2012 eponymous debut is rich in orchestration, with lush musical embraces that featured telekinetic musicians at their peak of inspiration and skill. Metheny and Potter clearly drive each other to new heights, and the rest of the band — Ben Williams on bass and drummer Antonio Sanchez — follow suit. As expected with any Metheny group, the playing is as tight as it gets, propelling even the gentlest songs onward through assorted sonic layers that twist and turn, but always returning to a central core. Yet even that's not enough to satisfy Metheny's creative curiosity.
"We all wanted to keep it going, and my sense of it was that we had only scratched the surface of what it might be," Metheny says of his band. "My instinct was to push it to be something else, but that that something else could have the benefits of all the playing we had already done together as a place to build from and expand outward from."
This brings us to Kin, the Unity Band's latest effort. Bolstered with the addition of multi-instrumentalist Giulio Carmassi, Metheny delves further into manipulating the art of improvisation in any setting.
"I would say that Kin is a record that sort of sets a new standard for me in the way that you can blend structure with improvisation," he says. "I have always had interests in defining an environment for improvisers that sat in close proximity to a lot of written material. Getting a good balance between the two has been an ongoing issue with me."
For such an exacting guitarist, Metheny's musical success seems to come easy. Perhaps it's simply the ease in which he embraces the Zen of the moment that sets his music apart.
"In almost any setting, you are faced with infinity," he says, Zen-like, "in the best possible way."