Is there a harder-working guitarist in jazz than Pat Metheny? His nearly 2 1/2 -hour program of nearly nonstop playing at the Wiltern Sunday night was a musical marathon, as athletic as it was imaginative, a muscular display of guitar virtuosity.
A full evening devoted to a jazz guitar trio -- even when the players are such world-class artists as Metheny, bassist Christian McBride and drummer Antonio Sanchez -- can, at first glance, seem to be a banquet with the same dish for every course. But not so with these imaginative chefs, who brought delectable variations to everything they offered.
Metheny wisely programmed the evening with contrasting sounds, styles and substance. Strolling casually on stage in characteristically unassuming fashion, wild hair flying in all directions, he began with the lush, far-ranging sounds of his baritone guitar. After floating through the engaging textures of "Make Peace" and a bossa nova-light rendering of "How Insensitive," he switched to his Frankenstein-like, multi-necked Pikasso guitar, employing its myriad of strings to propel a flight through the cloudy, New Agey textures of "Sound of Water."
When Metheny was joined by McBride and Sanchez, the mood switched again with the jazz rhythms of "So May It Secretly Begin." Other selections from the trio's recently released CD, "Day Trip," followed -- the airy title track, a moody "Snova" and the high-speed "Let's Move." Perhaps most intriguing of all, there was "Is This America?," composed, according to Metheny, while the group was touring in the Gulf Coast states after the Katrina disaster. The tune's simple, plaintive melody, with its subtle inferences to well-known patriotic songs, made its point without shouting, without using words, but with a powerful impact nonetheless.
Other high points in the program surfaced via Metheny duets -- "My Funny Valentine" with McBride, "All the Things You Are" with Sanchez. Each was a model of empathic playing between musicians with the skill to move seamlessly from upfront solo passages to fine-tuned, interactive support.
On the closing up-tempo finale, despite the potential fatigue of having arrived from San Francisco a scant hour and a half before the concert, the soloing set the bar even higher. Metheny was at his best; McBride pulled out his bow for an astonishingly adept set of arco choruses; and Sanchez transformed his drums into a multi-tonal collection of irresistible rhythm-producing instruments. Call it a night to remember.