But the standard formula of sax + drums + bass + guitar adds up to something special in the hands of Pat Metheny.
It has been a wild and woolly decade for jazz guitar star Pat Metheny. His 11 albums since 2002 include a folk-infused collaboration with Polish musicians; a record with one 68-minute song; a disc played almost entirely on a 19th-century hybrid instrument called the orchestrion; a solo acoustic album, and a collection of pop cover tunes from the 1960s.
Somewhere along the line, Metheny realized that what might be normal for most bandleaders would be a departure for him.
"It occurred to me that I'd made over 40 records and only two of them had a conventional rhythm section and a horn player," he said by phone last week. "That was shocking to me, but I have been committed to finding alternative ways of playing things, and going at it from different angles."
His solution was to put together a "conventional" quartet that was versatile enough to touch upon the myriad nooks and crannies in his music while retaining its own "authenticity," as he put it.
To honor that spirit, he named it the Unity Band. The group is being feted with mostly raves for its self-titled album, released in June, and an ambitious tour that takes it from the Detroit Jazz Festival to the intimate Dakota Jazz Club in Minneapolis on Tuesday and Wednesday.
The most important member is saxophonist Chris Potter. A stylist as voracious as Metheny requires a horn player who is just as virtuosic -- one reason why he hasn't featured a saxophonist since his 1985 collaboration with iconic innovator Ornette Coleman.
Potter qualifies. When Metheny opens "New Year" with a classical, almost flamenco, tone and phrasing, Potter's tenor sax galvanizes the mood. When Metheny gets into a synth-guitar groove that recalls the vintage Pat Metheny Group from the 1970s, Potter's soprano sax meets him at the upper end of the scale.
On "Come and See," Potter sets up Metheny's harp-like strumming with a lowing bass clarinet; later in the same tune Potter blows a mean tenor while Metheny wields his electric. And whether Metheny wants to deploy his orchestrion for "Signals," or meld hard bop with heavy metal on the bruising "Breakdealer," Potter plays as an equal partner.
Metheny rounds out the quartet with his longtime drummer Antonio Sanchez and young bassist Ben Williams. Like Potter, Sanchez is a Metheny favorite for his bold, distinctive versatility. Williams, whose liquid tone is crucial to the ensemble interplay, was chosen for his relative restraint.
"I can find 50 guys who can play in 11/8 time and execute 15 different chord changes, but there aren't many who can play a melody, or make it up as he goes along and be prominent but still leave space the way Ben can," Metheny explained. "With the rest of us so busy, that balance is really important."
The composer as curator
Once he got a commitment from the other three musicians, Metheny wrote songs for the group during a duet tour of Japan with bassist Larry Grenadier. The setting was perfect, since "with duets you are always challenged to play something creative, and because the gigs in Japan usually begin at 6 [p.m.] and end about 9, I had plenty of time to write."
He workshopped about 25 songs with the quartet on an abbreviated tour, discovering "the default place where the band is strongest," then rewriting and culling the material in the six days before Unity Band entered the studio. Eleven songs emerged.
"When you are a band leader, you assume the role almost of a curator, in that you are saying, 'Hey everybody, check out what these guys can do!' and you want to put the music in places where that happens," Metheny said.
"When you are in more or less of a conventional setting, there is a danger that it will come out as generic jazz, which to me is something to be avoided. I definitely think we have avoided that with this band."
Given his and the other musicians' busy schedules, "we have to plan things out two years or more in advance, but we're having so much fun that I wouldn't be surprised if we got back together," Metheny said.
"Then again, I think Chris is about to explode and take it to another level. He may not be available to me in two years."