Barely a word was spoken onstage during Pat Metheny’s concert at Zappa Herzliya Monday night. Occasionally he seemed to mumble a thank you, but not into the microphone, so it was inaudible. It was a verbal minimalism untypical of shows by important foreign artists.
But the American guitarist had little need for words. At 61, he looks much as he has for decades: the wild hair, the guitar held high, the endearing smile and — usually, but not this time — a striped shirt.
Metheny’s music, like the man himself, is cheerful, exhilarating, tremendously melodic and unafraid of sweetness. Many jazz musicians avoid what can sometimes veer toward kitsch, but it’s hard to deny that Metheny’s melodic skill is extraordinary. He has an incredible ability to instantly compose the most memorable tunes. On many of his albums, the improvised solos are just as notable, sometimes even more so, than the melodies they riff on.
Metheny’s superb quartet included bassist Linda Oh, drummer Antonio Sanchez and pianist Gwilym Simcock.
The show’s declared aim was to revisit the classics. It was achieved, and the performance was a thrilling “best-of.”
At the start of nearly every selection, there was thunderous applause from the audience which recognized it from the first note. The crowd sang along, and all around people could be heard happily humming the melodies. Not what one usually finds at an instrumental performance.
The show opened with “So It May Secretly Begin,” with Metheny playing the Pikasso Guitar — a multi-necked instrument with 42 strings that was custom-designed and built for Metheny by the Canadian master luthier Linda Manzer. Metheny had asked her for an acoustic instrument with “as many strings as possible.” The choice to open with it may have had to do with the mesmerizing effect achieved by its special shape and sound. It immediately captures the audience’s full attention.
Much of the evening was devoted to Metheny’s first album, “Bright Size Life,” the 1976 masterpiece that brought him to world prominence and introduced a young bass player who went on to become one of that instrument’s biggest stars, Jaco Pastorius.
The title cut was a highlight of the show, as were two others from the album that followed, “Sirabhom” and the gorgeous “Midwestern Nights Dream.”
Another highlight was the spectacular “The Red One,” famous from the mid-1990s rock version that Metheny performed with guitarist John Scofield.
Metheny played the solo on a guitar synthesizer, whose beloved and familiar sounds brought the audience to its feet after one of the solos.
It was a further reminder that in addition to Metheny’s melodic sweetness, which some might perceive as a type of conservatism, he has always had a technologically adventurous streak. It began in the 1980s and ‘90s with the Pikasso and the guitar-synth, and continued in the 2000s with an ambitious project.
The Orchestrion Project consisted of a room full of instruments — piano, bass, drums, vibraphone and more — that played independently based on the notes that Metheny played on his guitar or fed into the computer.
Sanchez was another standout of the evening. The drummer’s expressive tone may sound familiar to anyone who has seen Alejandro Gonzalez Inarrito’s 2014 Oscar-winning film “Birdman.” Sanchez wrote and performed original percussion music for the sound track, which won the Grammy Award for Best Score Soundtrack for Visual Media in 2016.
On the Zappa stage, Sanchez and his bandmates seemed to be inspired by Metheny’s melodiousness. Each of his solos, despite being performed “only” on drums, contained a bright melodiousness. Sanchez managed to find a rhythmic form of expression that spoke fluent Metheny.
Toward the end of the concert, Metheny played an intimate duet with each of the other musicians, a lovely gesture to these talented young folk. After a several-minute standing ovation, Metheny returned for an encore and the full quartet played “Are You Going With Me?,” one of his signature pieces from the early 1980s. Everyone in the crowd was definitely and most delightedly going with him.