A Magic Number 

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Pat Metheny is the opposite of a chameleon. He doesn't blend into the settings of his numerous projects as much as he reshapes the musical landscape around him.

Though he's now 30 years into his phenomenal career, many of his distinctive charms were already in place in his 1978 breakthrough, "The Pat Metheny Group" (ECM) -- from the bright rhythms, harmonic sophistication and endless melodic invention to the striped collarless shirt and leonine haircut. The guitarist's sound has become so familiar, ubiquitous and conventionally appealing that it's difficult to recognize now just how original it once was.

His music has always been balanced between the accessible and the serious, between heart and art, depending on the context. The still-thriving Pat Metheny Group wins Grammy after Grammy with lush synthesizer epics. (The most ambitious and largest-scale being 2005's 70-minute "The Way Up.") His less commercial side is shown in small group, solo or duo sessions or in his turns as a sideman.

But today the purest way to experience Metheny's playing is in his trio. Guitar/drum/bass assemblages have been part of the guitarist's work from the beginning. His debut recording was a trio, and he's returned to the form several times since. The stripped-down lineup provides a transparent context for his lyrical invention and demands a high level of interplay — no member of that small ensemble is ever out of the spotlight. Metheny's had his pick of great players through the years, but since 2003 the lineup has been stable, with Christian McBride on bass and Antonio Sanchez on drums.

For McBride, playing in Richmond is something of a homecoming. He was the music director of the Modlin Center's summer jazz series from 2000 to 2005, and with his band hosted concerts that were augmented by guest artists. "We miss it down there," McBride says of Richmond. He has a similar position with the L.A. Philharmonic, albeit with a bit less latitude. "It's a classic programming gig," he says. "Just scheduling artists but not playing with them with my band."

In addition to touring with Metheny four out of the last five years, McBride stays busy in the studio. With more than 300 recordings to his credit, he virtually always has a new record out, including a great release by ex-Coltrane pianist McCoy Tyner, and anchoring the surprisingly effective new jazz-tinged CD by Queen Latifah.

McBride's recording career will reach new heights when astronaut, fan and (based on an Internet photo) look-alike Leland Melvin carries a Christian McBride Band CD into space. (The connection was facilitated by Modlin Center Executive Director Kathy Panoff.) After playing with almost everyone, the bassist has no trouble fitting into what he calls "Pat's thing."

Metheny never strays far from the recognizable heart of a piece, but he finds a lot of colors within the lines. "He's very lyrical," drummer Sanchez says, "all these amazing melodies all the time. I find myself playing that way as well."

The Nov. 9 performance will be similar to the one in 2004, with some new compositions and others drawn from Metheny's extensive songbook. "It hasn't changed much," McBride says, "It's the same vibe."

In many ways it's the same vibe as the guitarist's first Richmond performance in 1978, when he was relatively unknown, playing in a hot upstairs club in front of a few people. His shows regularly sell out now — not because Metheny has changed, but because his audience has aligned around him. S

The Pat Metheny Trio plays University of Richmond's Modlin Center Friday, Nov. 9, at 7:30 and 10:30 p.m. Tickets are $8-$36. 289-8980.

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