The trouble with trios, for guitarist Pat Metheny, is that they don't seem to last.
Not that Metheny hasn't used the format to create memorable, highly sophisticated art music.
Bright Size Life, his 1975 debut album, had the Missouri native joined by bassist Jaco Pastorius and drummer Bob Moses. The revered instrumentalist-bandleader-composer brought his guitar synthesizer along for 1983's Rejoicing, a rangy outing with bassist Charlie Haden and drummer Billy Higgins.
Metheny, drummer Roy Haynes and bassist Dave Holland offered originals and intriguing readings of standards on 1989's Question and Answer. And the guitarist connected with bassist Larry Grenadier and drummer Bill Stewart for studio and live CDs released in 2000.
And yet Metheny's latest trio, with bassist Christian McBride and Antonio Sanchez, the Pat Metheny Group's regular drummer, may be the revered guitarist-composer's most satisfying such band yet. The trio plays Tampa Theatre on Monday night, on a tour in support of the just-released Day Trip.
"At this point we must have played 400 or 500 dates as a trio," Metheny, 53, said from his home on New York's Upper West Side, where he lives with his wife and two young children. "This is the only band I've ever had other than the Group where I feel like we could play for anyone, anywhere, under any circumstances.
"This band has a certain flexibility: We can play for 50 people in a club or 150,000 people."
Setting the standard
Metheny has a knack for pairing bassists and drummers who've never previously played together. He first heard McBride when the Philadelphian was 17, and playing with trumpeter Freddie Hubbard in the early '90s. Metheny first encountered Sanchez, a Mexico City native, when both led trios on a double-bill concert in Europe. Sanchez and McBride first played together when Metheny gathered the three for gigs in 2002.
"It was fine, right from note one," Metheny said. "If you hire people like that — really the state of the art of what can be done on acoustic bass and what can be done on drums in 2008 — then it's incumbent on you to come up with new music that allows them to get to do what they do. That's a big responsibility, and that's what got me started writing music for them. Each time we'd go out, I'd bring a few more tunes. We must have 60 or 70 tunes now."
Midway through a tour in October 2005, the trio took two days off to record some of the music they'd been playing live, along with several tunes that hadn't been road-tested. Right after that tour, Metheny paired with pianist Brad Mehldau for concerts and recordings and promptly put the trio work out of his head. When he returned to the trio recordings, "I thought, 'Did we do that?' It was almost out of body because I didn't really have much memory of that."
The results, though, are impressive. At Last You're Here has Metheny's familiar pastel-hued lines sketching a pretty melody, while the fast-moving Let's Move thrives on a tricky arrangement and high-flying improvisations. Snova is imbued with bossa tinges, and Calvin's Keys, named for the Kansas City guitarist, sounds like vintage soul jazz. The Red One is a funk-rock bruiser originally heard on Metheny's album collaboration with John Scofield.
The brooding Is This America? was written in response to the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. "We were on the road when that (Katrina) happened," he said. "To come back to the hotel room and see those images, it poses that question: Is this America? It looks like someplace else, yet at the same time we're going to have to live with that."
Music that is real
The most affecting jazz, Metheny said, is that which disregards genre and simply reflects its place in time.
"We played in Morocco, for 150,000 people. I'm sure 149,000 of them had no idea what jazz was. It was really a testament to what this trio really is about. It was so satisfying in a way to see that thing where it's jazz but it transcends jazz. It's people. This trio has a fantastic opportunity to really reaffirm that,'' he said.
"My take is that jazz should be folk music, people music, from the realities of the time. The idea that jazz must be this or must be that — the history of jazz doesn't support that. Every one of my favorite (musicians) comes deeply from the time that they're in,'' said Metheny, who has said Haden, Miles Davis, Ornette Coleman, Chick Corea, Gary Burton and guitarists Wes Montgomery and Jim Hall are among his top influences.
"That's an interesting kind of paradox. The jazz tradition means that you have to mess with it. There's a leap of faith there."
Philip Booth is a Tampa writer specializing in music and movies. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.