Concert Review: Pat Metheny’s Side-Eye — A Very Modern Organ Trio
By Paul Robicheau
At New Hampshire’s just-christened Nashua Center for the Arts, 68-year-old jazz guitarist Pat Metheny shared a wily sidelong glance at his own broad compositional and improvisational history.
Pat Metheny assembled his current project Side-Eye as a vehicle to work with a diverse, changeable cast of younger musicians in a retooled trio format. But on Friday at New Hampshire’s just-christened Nashua Center for the Arts, a sleek 750-seat auditorium with impeccable sound, the 68-year-old jazz guitarist also shared a wily sidelong glance at his own broad compositional and improvisational history.
The near-two-hour concert began and ended with Metheny alone on a stool at center stage, first on his 42-string Pikasso, a crisscrossed harp guitar with plenty of places to tap and strum, and lastly on a simple nylon-string. In between, however, Metheny loosely wove a dynamic travelogue that stretched from “Bright Size Life,” the title track to his 1976 debut, to a minimal version of his so-called orchestrion, electro-acoustic sculptures with mechanical triggers to add percussive textures.
To pull it off, Metheny still depended on deft flesh-and-blood accompaniment from keyboardist Chris Fishman and drummer Joe Dyson. The New Orleans-bred Dyson poked crisp accents to Metheny’s resolving lines in the trio’s aptly named first number “So May It Secretly Begin.” Through several initial tunes, the group hewed to subtleties under the clean, monochromatic flurries of the guitarist’s trademark hollow-body, finally swinging into the assertive jazz of “Timeline.”
The group ostensibly operates as an organ trio, but a modern one where Fishman leaned to his synthesizers and piano more than his compact rear Hammond. His Side-Eye predecessor James Francies may be a tough act to follow, but Fishman slowly developed his place in the sound, spinning circular left-hand bass lines on synth while soloing with his right hand on piano. Metheny occasionally fingered low strings of his guitar to fill out the bottom as well, notably freeing Fishman for a two-handed piano flight in a duet treatment of Pat Metheny Group chestnut “Phase Dance.” Notes remained sparse and tasteful, and the bandleader stuck to one guitar throughout as he phrased the song’s signature chords and harmonics.
Yet, much like with the PMG, the set truly opened up once Metheny unveiled his guitar synthesizer (the same Roland model that he introduced in the early ’80s), unleashing that thicker, trumpet-like tone to solo out of “When We Were Free.” From there, he flipped to the opposite dynamic with a solo acoustic turn through the pastoral nugget “Farmer’s Trust.” Then covers were lifted off three stacks at the back of the stage to reveal his mini-orchestrion setup, most noticeable for layered textures from vibraphone and marimba bars that each lit up as they were triggered when the group negotiated the bubbling “It Starts When We Disappear,” the 13-minute opening track from Side-Eye’s live 2021 debut NYC (V1.IV).
Metheny pulled a final extreme stroke when he dueted with a surging Dyson by soloing on an amped-up fretless nylon-string with rubbery freneticism somewhere between Ornette Coleman (whose “Turnaround” he liberally quoted) and Sonic Youth. In style and attack, especially in contrast to the concert’s first 40 minutes, it may have been the last thing the audience expected. And it was freely invigorating.
When the night soon came around to an encore, Metheny returned to his stool for a more traditional nylon-string wander through bits of crowd-pleasing melodies, showcasing “James,” a folky tune inspired by James Taylor. And while it might have been preferable for the band to return for a final blow/bow, Metheny had made his statement and, in the end, the Side-Eye marquee carried his name and legacy.
While he has spoken of recording a studio album with Side-Eye, Metheny’s next release will be Dream Box, due out June 16 and supported with a fall solo tour that includes a September 21 Boston date at the Wilbur. Behind that album of self-described “quiet electric guitar,” Metheny will surely occupy a narrower, more mellow zone, even if one never knows exactly what he’ll float into onstage.
Paul Robicheau served more than 20 years as contributing editor for music at the Improper Bostonian in addition to writing and photography for the Boston Globe, Rolling Stone, and many other publications. He was also the founding arts editor of Boston Metro.