Pat Metheny’s 1978 debut album Bright Size Life, now widely appreciated as a classic, is a set of music that is at once both intricate and intimate. As coruscating and beautiful as it is, it gave little indication of the development Metheny would take towards sophisticated and elaborate long form composing for a range of ensemble contexts, from the long-running musical relationship with keyboardist Lyle Mays and the Pat Metheny Group, to the solo machine experiments of the Orchestrion project.
Over his enduring career, Metheny has won 20 Grammy awards and is probably the closest thing contemporary jazz has to a star or celebrity figure – yet he remains restless and committed to innovation. He continues to draw large audiences whilst refusing to meet their expectations directly.
The ensemble for Kin both solidifies and expands the group Metheny deployed for 2012’s Unity Band. Metheny is again joined by flighty saxophonist Chris Potter, the adventurous drummer Antonio Sanchez and bassist Ben Williams. This time, however, Metheny has also called on the services of Giulio Carmani, who plays a staggering eleven instruments here, and is crucial in defining this music’s vivid range of textures and moods (albeit much less of a frontline improvising presence). Metheny’s contribution also now incorporates a refined, portable version of the Orchestrion, further enabling additional layers of instrumentation. This music, although often lively and animated, rarely sounds cluttered however, with a strong musical sensibility at its core that also values space and contemplation.
The name of the group and the album’s title suggest history, lineage, family and connections – and Metheny’s latest ensemble brilliantly explores the shared hinterland between a variety of musical fields and approaches. For example, Rise Up hints at Eastern European folk dance, Adagia (mainly focusing on Potter and the keys of Giulio Carmani) suggests a current preoccupation with Keith Jarrett and Jan Garbarek whilst there are also moments suggestive of the modern minimalism of Steve Reich.
Kin is remarkably out of step with the attention-deficit nature of the times, with four tracks clocking in at over ten minutes in duration, with the opening On Day One breaking the 15 minute barrier. It should be emphasised, however, that this is far from an indulgence. The lengthy pieces allow Metheny and his band to explore a range of dynamics, textures and moods, as well as allowing for some lyrical and articulate improvising. There appears to be a renewed focus on melody too, both in the glorious themes and in terms of Metheny’s personal approach to improvisation.
Although rich in spontaneity and fluidity, Kin also feels very much like a piece of musical architecture. The long form pieces very much communicate their own elaborate and considered narratives. The opening On Day One is as joyous and masterful a composition as anyone could hope for. It begins with gently rolling cymbals and big chords suggestive of a sunrise. It then opens out into an absorbing clave pattern set in asymmetrical time. In addition to a tremendous volume of nuanced writing, this piece also contains substantial solo features. Chris Potter’s exuberant solo elevates the whole piece, with the rhythm section switching to double time in an assured and thrilling transition.
There’s a sprightliness and a captivating agility present throughout this album, even in its more reflective and graceful moments. This suggests a new ensemble taking complete joy in the art of making creative music and taking new risks. The album concludes with tracks which are, by virtue of their clarity, directness and accessibility, its greatest oddities. Concluding track KQU is blessed with a delightful melody and an almost weightless feel, while We Carry On is polished, crisp and immediate, if by some distance the least challenging moment on this typically ambitious and bold album.