Pat Metheny does not easily yield the spotlight. The guitarist works in multiple genres, across multiple guitars, from Gibson “archtop” and nylon-string to guitar synthesizer and the unique 42-string Pikasso. It’s hard to turn attention away from him, no matter who he’s playing with.
Which makes it quite significant that at Strathmore Music Center on Wednesday night, the contribution of his side musicians was hard to overstate. That wasn’t the initial impression, with Metheny beginning the show with a dramatic, unaccompanied New Age piece on the Pikasso. But then pianist Gwilym Simcock, bassist Linda Oh and drummer Antonio Sánchez joined him onstage and the balance of musical power shifted remarkably. They not only kept up with the master, they did so for an astonishing, often exhilarating 2 1/2 hours.
Oh and Sánchez, in particular, made the music rich and lustrous. Diminutive in stature, the bassist had a full, round, clean sound that was distinct even through the intensity of the guitar and drums. Oh was also easily able to follow Metheny’s labyrinthine harmonies, on top of him at every turn in the hard-swinging second tune and the Spanish flair of the fifth. (Alas, Metheny refrained from announcing titles — though the audience recognized and applauded most of them.) Sánchez’s drums were busy and loud, a match for the guitarist’s intensity. On Metheny’s tune “James,” he demonstrated his worth in a duet faceoff with the guitarist, then in a bashing solo feature toward the end whose colors and deliberate pacing less evoked jazz skins than Led Zeppelin drummer John Bonham.
Simcock wasn’t so fortunate, at least for the first half of the concert. His sound setup rendered him inaudible during ensemble playing; this writer thought at first that he was miming. Additionally, when he soloed, Simcock’s low end cut out, so that his grand piano sounded like a cheap keyboard. But the problem was fixed in the show’s second half, and Simcock attacked with a sound that skewed big-R Romantic at one point and quirky, Thelonious Monk-meets-Eastern Europe at the next. His finest moment, though, came when Oh and Sánchez left the stage and Simcock and Metheny played a duo rendition of “Phase Dance.” The pianist emitted opulent chords and delicate fills under Metheny’s improvised lyricism, and when his solo turn came he upped the ante, becoming not just lyrical but devotedly, even defiantly so.
Oh and Sánchez also took duo features with Metheny. The bassist joined him in a downright sexy take on the standard “How Insensitive,” her tango-touched rhythm entwining with his sinuous single-note lines (which turned into suggestively dissonant chords when he accompanied her solo). The drummer engaged in another faceoff with the guitarist, this time morphing from knotty post-bop jazz to heavy metal to eerie psychedelia, and taking solo breaks that he would rein in just before they became ostentatious (at least until the percussive tsunami he finished with).
The ensemble came majestically together again for a final encore of “Song for Bilbao,” with each member taking a monster solo — but more notably, rocking it out as a group. It’s one that Metheny, strong as he is in his own right, should hold together as long as he can.