By Bobby Talamine
Pat Metheny came to town on a Friday night, with an intimate stop at Chicago’s Thalia Hall, touring on the strength of his new project- “Side- Eye” a new release based on a fresh take on the classic organ trio format, which consists of an atypical style of instruments- piano / Hammond Organ / synths and bass synths, drums, and of course Pat Metheny on guitar. And no bass. Yeah- you heard right. No bass.
You would think initially that this format for live performance would be hard to pull off, since the keyboardist would have to keep the beat going with providing bass along with his duties for improvisation. A mighty challenge in my opinion. You have to find the right cat who is ambidextrous enough to make it sound fresh, as if an upright bass musician was now a quartet and not a trio. That question was easily muted and answered within the first song of the evening as a trio: “Have You Heard”- A Pat Metheny Group song from 1989.
The talented musician in question to handle this mighty task is James Francies from Houston Texas. James Francies has an explosive and phenomenal keyboard style, who can accomplish so much with so little and look at ease while doing it. He’s surrounded of course by a large flank of keyboards, swiveling this way and that to match tonal textures and mood depending on the keyboard and keyboards. James was easily able to fill in on bass lines, and segueing at a moment’s notice to enhance a composition or solo as needed throughout.
I bring this up automatically because of this format as a trio- and that yet again I find Pat challenging himself and keeping an ear to the ground in finding new and inspiring musicians to play with. So this trio touring for “Side- Eye” is a fresh take on that, and pushing the boundaries on what they can accomplish with new material and established Pat Metheny material as well.
But of course you also need a drummer that can handle the challenge for this type of format as well- a guy who can be a beast behind the beat, and yet know intuitively some modicum of restraint. Pat found that guy in Joe Dyson, a drummer from New Orleans.
So now that we established all the connections and ideals of this version of a jazz trio format, we can concentrate on the songs, and the overall performance. By the time Pat had arrived at Thalia Hall, his trio had already been playing since mid September, and maturing in such a way that actual solos by all three, improvisation by all three, and an intrinsic communication by all three was now established and elevating a more relaxed feel throughout the evening.
But beyond Pat and his accomplished and virtuoso playing, it all comes down to the keyboards to make the sound of this type of trio worthwhile and b- note worthy.
It all falls on James Francies and what he can accomplish to a make this work.
So we know he’s uber gifted at the keyboards, able to easily fill in on bass lines throughout, and that he’s a tried and true ensemble musician with a keen ear to watch out for the other two on the stage. You become aware of this immediately by watching Pat and his constant turning his head to the right to watch and hear James while playing, with a big smile on his face- a look of success, a look of joy, knowing he’s found the right guy to pull this off performing live.
James is a very unique kind of breed of musician- oh so talented and adept at what seems in playing any type of jazz music, and make it personal and with a statement of remembrance.
And so it goes throughout the evening, a setlist comprising of some material from SIde- Eye, some covers, and some early Pat Metheny Group songs- 14 in total.
As the evening went on, improvisation and fair play seemingly got amped and elevated depending on the song, with nuggets like “Timeline”, a Michael Brecker cover, which elevated the trio sound to new heights, or better yet “Trigonometry”, a song from Pat Metheny and Ornette Coleman that truly defines wild and experimental improvisation.
The whole evening was like this- from gentle / experimental, to full on synth axe electric.
As for the song “It Starts When We Disappear” from Side- Eye, it’s fresh and clean with a memorable opening melody and refrain, and yet fits so easily into the Pat Metheny canon, and the evening’s set as a whole. You could tell throughout the entire evening that Pat was enjoying playing immensely, having spent 18 months or so without any live gigs whatsoever, appreciating his new trio format, having an audience to play too, along with trying out new songs. And the audience at Thalia Hall knew this as well, that accomplished musicianship was the order of the day, and that hearing live performance in an intimate venue with Covid protocols didn’t stop the faithful from coming in and watching and listening intently.
Have to say after the show, I left the venue feeling refreshed and serene.
Photos from the show, click here
Pat Metheny Setlist:
1. Turnaround (Ornette Coleman cover)
2. Have You Heard (Pat Metheny Group song)
3. So May It Secretly Begin (PMG song)
4. Bright Size Life
5. Better Days Ahead (PMG song)
6. Timeline (Michael Brecker cover)
7. Always and Forever
8. When We Were Free ( PMG song)
9. Message to a Friend (Charlie Haden & Pat Metheny song)
10. It Starts When We Disappear
11. Trigonometry (Pat Metheny & Ornette Coleman cover)
12. Into the Dream / Zenith Blue
13. Minuano (Six Eight) / As It Is / The Way Up, Pt 1 / September Fifteenth / The Sun in Montreal / Midwestern Nights Dream /
Antonia / This is Not America / Last Train Home
14. Are You Going With Me? (PMG song)