Big Band Metheny explore and expand the legendary guitarist’s songbook

Adam McCulloch
Tuesday, October 18, 2022

Judging by the vociferous sell-out audience at Ronnie’s, Pat Metheny’s music doesn’t need the presence of the great man himself to garner enthusiastic acclaim, as Adam McCulloch found out

Big Band Metheny at Ronnie Scott's - Photo by Monika S. Jakubowska
Big Band Metheny at Ronnie Scott's - Photo by Monika S. Jakubowska

Big Band Metheny (BBM), now under the direction of bassist Dominic Bentham having been created in the early 2000s by altoist Simon Gilbey, has standard big band instrumentation plus a percussionist. It of course makes a very different sound to the Pat Metheny Group, which apart from the occasional blow from Mark Ledford, only added a horn (a single trumpet), when the extraordinary Cuong Vu joined the band in its later years. But BBM’s success on the live stage shows that the music of Metheny and (the late) Lyle Mays, with its rich, romantic melodies, exciting fast-switching rhythms and intriguing interludes, transfers perfectly into other formats. Clearly, a good tune is a good tune. Swapping the PMG’s rich palette of sound for standard horn and rhythm section voices is also no doubt a satisfying challenge for arrangers.

Judging by the setlist at Ronnies, those arrangers, such as former Stan Kenton trombonist Bob Curnow who has recorded two CDs' worth of Metheny/Mays material, have steered clear of some of the more pastoral-tinged early PMG classics such as ‘Phase Dance’, ‘The Fields and the Sky’ and ‘Travels’, and instead dived head-long into the more complex, composed pieces such as ‘First Circle’, ‘Every Summer Night’, ‘Have You Heard’, ‘So May it Secretly Begin’, and ‘5-5-7’. Having said that, ‘Last Train Home’ might seem an unlikely candidate for a big band arrangement but tenor player Nigel Penfold captures the romance and momentum of the crowd-pleasing original perfectly, Erica Clarke excelling here on baritone sax.

Also excelling was altoist Tommy Andrews, offering a crystal-clear flow of ideas on soprano sax during 5-5-7 from the Letter from Home record, one of several highlights, and interestingly a tune rarely if ever performed live by PMG. ‘5-5-7’’s jutting cross-rhythmic interlude was made for a dynamic trombone section and here it got the full treatment from Martin Gladdish, Dave Liddell et al.

It seems wrong not to list every band member but that’s the nature of big band – personal glory is elusive! Every soloist excelled, quite a feat when raising the eyes from charts that require maximum concentration to follow. Sid Gauld on flugel beautifully brought out the warm nostalgia of ‘Always and Forever’, a song written for Metheny’s parents; Steve Fishwick on trumpet played a sinuous, compelling solo on ‘Afternoon’ from the Speaking of Now album, and Andrew Linham’s wild and bubbling solo on an exuberant ‘Song for Bilbao’ concluded the evening with joy.

Percussionist Joel Prime’s presence was felt throughout, his work evoking memories of PMG’s Armando Marçal (Marçalzinho) on a superb rendition of ‘So May it Secretly Begin’, while an explosive ‘Are We There Yet?’, ‘Bilbao’ and ‘It's Just Talk’ also featured great work by drummer Scott Chapman and pianist Hilary Cameron. In the Steve Rodby role, Bentham underpinned the band with dexterity on electric and double bass, with his polite understated announcement style making quite the contrast with Metheny's Missouri drawl for those who've seen the guitarist perform live.

Big Band Metheny is a triumph of musicianship and orchestration with appeal well beyond the usual big band conventions, a band that must be as fun to play in as it is to listen to.




Subscribe from only £6.75

Start your journey and discover the very best music from around the world.


View the Current

Take a peek inside the latest issue of Jazzwise magazine.

Find out more