Though he’s the rare jazz musician who can fill a venue like the Keswick, with fans who roar approval for each classic melody more akin to a classic rock show than a jazz gig, Pat Metheny clearly sees himself as part of the jazz tradition. His latest trio Side-Eye, which played a wide-ranging set in Glenside Thursday night, is the 67-year-old guitarist’s conscious attempt to play a mentorship role akin to past bandleaders like Art Blakey and his own early employer, Gary Burton.
Metheny has intentionally rotated several drummers through the trio’s drum chair. Marcus Gilmore, a veteran of bands led by Chick Corea and Vijay Iyer, appeared on Side-Eye’s recent self-titled debut release, but on Thursday the role was filled by the gifted New Orleans native Joe Dyson. The drummer opened the evening in duo with Metheny, supplying crisp, ricocheting percussion that accentuated the sharp angles of Ornette Coleman’s “Turnaround.”
The trio’s third member is a constant, though, and one who Metheny credited for inspiring this new group in his uncharacteristic opening remarks at the Keswick. “He’s found a new thing, which you can’t say very often,” he said of the 26-year-old from Houston. “There wouldn’t be a band like this without him.”
By way of introduction, Metheny then engaged James Francies in a duo version of “Have You Heard,” a song from the Grammy-winning 1989 Pat Metheny Group album Letter From Home. Francies’ gymnastic piano solo was impressive both technically and musically, but it was with the first trio tune of the night that the young keyboardist’s uniqueness was truly spotlighted.
On “So May It Secretly Begin,” from 1987′s Still Life (Talking) — another Grammy winner — Francies played keyboard bass with his left hand while unfurling quicksilver synth lines with his right. Later in the evening, on “When We Were Free,” Francies played a full-fledged bass solo on the keyboard that could have fooled a blindfolded listener while comping for himself on piano. He then shifted fully to the piano, elaborating the ideas from his bass solo on the keyboard with grand flourishes.
Side-Eye thus becomes something like a classic organ trio, modernized with a combination of technology and virtuosity. The appeal of that idea to Metheny is obvious given the guitar wizard’s longtime passion for innovative approaches and offbeat gadgetry. Both were on full display over the course of Thursday’s concert.
While he played his signature blond hollow body electric through most of the show, Metheny also switched on his synth guitar at a few key moments, steering the latter half of “When We Were Free” into overdriven psychedelia and ending the night with a blistering take on the blissful classic “Are You Going With Me?” He also brought out his 42-string Pikasso guitar, a mutant instrument blending classical guitar with harp and mandolin, for the lovely solo piece “Into the Dream.” He also unveiled a few of the pieces from his Orchestrion, a mechanical orchestra controlled by solenoids and mechanics, which provided rippling percussion for the new piece “It Starts When We Disappear.”
This trick bag of personalities and toys allowed for a broad spectrum of moods over the course of the two-hour-plus set. Dyson brought an elastic lope to the ballad “Better Days Ahead” as Francies sang angelic melodies into a vocoder. The keyboardist then moved to the Hammond organ, tracing corkscrew turns on the blistering blues of “Timeline.” The trio then took a bracing turn to the abstract on “Trigonometry” from Song X, Metheny’s polarizing 1986 collaboration with Ornette Coleman, with the guitarist unleashing some of his most serrated and breakneck playing of the night.
Perhaps the most poignant moment came with the first of two encores, a solo medley of Metheny Group tunes. The guitarist has played such crowd-pleasing pieces in the past, but this is his first tour since the 2020 death of keyboardist Lyle Mays, his closest collaborator for many years. The lyrical medley felt like a farewell, and cast earlier pieces associated with now-lost mentors and peers — the two Coleman tunes, a lovely acoustic piece originally recorded with bassist Charlie Haden, a song written for saxophonist Michael Brecker — in a more elegiac light.