Unity Band marks the first time guitarist Pat Metheny has recorded with a group that features a tenor saxophonist since his classic 1980 album 80/81, a release that found him successfully melding his folk-fusion sensibility to a traditional acoustic-jazz format. After 30 years of exploring different configurations, Metheny has returned to the jazz quartet with a new ensemble featuring saxophonist Chris Potter, bassist Ben Williams, and longtime drummer Antonio Sanchez.
The new album rarely sounds as fresh as 80/81. Perhaps that’s because the adventurous musical cross-pollinations of 80/81 have become relatively commonplace on the jazz landscape. Or maybe it’s because, like many modern jazz releases, Unity Band is simply too long. Clocking in at 65 minutes, the album would’ve benefited by pruning the handful of lackluster tracks — including the moody ballads “This Belongs to You” and “Then and Now” — that dampen the moments of genuine excitement.
The album’s centerpiece is “Signals (Orchestrion Sketch),” a 12-minute track whose unpredictable blend of independent and interweaving musical lines is anchored by a simple pulse. The band patiently builds to a crescendo, employing a device — an orchestrion — that creates live loops through the guitar. Occasionally recalling the minimalist work of Steve Reich, the composition’s chiming layers of sound are both hypnotic and thrilling.
Other highlights include the uptempo “Breakdealer,” with its skittering rhythms and frenetic sax solo, and “Roofdogs,” where Metheny’s guitar synth creates heavy smears of intricately textured sound. There’s also the gorgeous opening of “Come and See,” which combines bass clarinet and harp-like strumming. These moments and a few others underscore the groundbreaking impulses of the quartet, but they also highlight how often the band seems to play it safe.