Pat Metheny Scales Down With Acoustic Jazz Trio

Guitar hero enjoying intimacy of stripped-down group and smaller halls.

WASHINGTON, D.C. — On an unseasonably balmy evening March 8, guitarist Pat Metheny — who has sold out arenas — brought bassist Larry Grenadier and drummer Bill Stewart into the intimate confines of the Blues Alley.

"It's nice to be back in places where I can hear people chew," he said to the packed club, after playing a laid-back "Soul Cowboy," a blues-tinged number from the group's latest album Trio 99–00, (Feb. 8).

Metheny has worn many hats in his 15-year career as a leader. Last year he led a big band that included jazz's legendary Heath Brothers — Jimmy on saxophone, Percy on bass, Tootie on drums — plus two other drummers. In 1985, he co-led a quartet with iconic sax guru Ornette Coleman; in 1980 there was a duet with percussionist Nana Vasconcelos.

Now the 45-year-old guitarist is touring in a configuration — a straight-ahead jazz trio — that he hasn't used for seven years. With his customary beaming grin, Einstein-like hair and horizontal-striped sweater, Metheny seemed to enjoy the warm sound he and his band were generating in the 150-seat room.

As usual, his sound — marked by a bell-like tone, a distinctive rhythmic bounce and melodies that linger in the mind — was instantly recognizable and equally unmistakable.

The trio opened with two numbers from Trio 99–00, then went back to Metheny's first record as a leader, 1976's Bright Sized Life, to play "Sirabhorn." Brian Wagner, 23, from Virginia, said the tune "makes me feel like when you walk down a hill after having a few drinks: Your feet walk for you."

The trio played a crafty, Latin-flavored version of "May It Secretly Begin" — a favorite of Metheny's electric band — that made room for Stewart to duel with Metheny while Grenadier supplied rhythmic heft. A little later, Metheny picked up a custom double-necked 18-string guitar for a yet-to-be named ballad. He played the bassline, the strumming pattern and the lead line of the tune simultaneously.

For an encore to the 75-minute set, the band romped through "Panama Blues," Metheny generating distortion with a 12-string classical guitar.

Metheny told the crowd about the current tour, which ends next week in California. "We did a European swing, had a really great time and decided to go into the studio, which would give us an excuse to keep touring, this time in the States."

The trio has five more dates, all in California: Wednesday, at the Crest Theater in Sacramento; Thursday, at Luther Burbank Center in Santa Rosa; Friday, at the Carriage House Theater in Saratoga; Saturday, at Masonic Auditorium in San Francisco; and Sunday, in Royce Hall in Los Angeles.

This summer, Metheny and Stewart will join saxophonist Michael Brecker and keyboardist Larry Goldings for a 2000 Special Tour.