Pat Metheny: The Orchestrion Project
Senior Editor since 2004With the realization that there will always be more music coming at him than he can keep up with, John wonders why anyone would think that jazz is dead or dying.
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If all this talk about expense makes it sound like Metheny's Orchestrion is about many things other than the music, it's another thought that couldn't be further from the truth. But in order to ensure the best possible recording-both audio and video-rather than trying to record live concerts, Metheny chose to set up in the church where he spent months developing the Orchestrion show and record it there, without an audience, making it possible to film the instrument-dense stage from every possible angle; to create a system of lighting that would make it even more visually arresting than the actual tour; and be in a position to relatively easily handle problems, if and when they arose.
Metheny has often talked about going into "self-edit mode" when he knows a concert is being recorded (whether intentionally or by audience members who choose to ignore his requests not to, but that's grist for another lengthy discussion), and so the idea of not recording in front of a live audience really has little impact on the end result. Sure, there's the undeniable energy of an audience, but based on the 87-minute film and 21 minutes of bonus tracks, Metheny had no problem ratcheting up the energy levels when necessary, like on the closing song of the main film, "Stranger in Town," taken at an even faster clip than the Pat Metheny Group version of We Live Here (Nonesuch, 1995). Sure it lacks the interaction that makes PMG such a strong live act-and happy news, fans; it looks like the seven-year hiatus following the ambitious The Way Up (Nonesuch, 2005) and subsequent world tour is nearly overbut working with preprogrammed tracks, and adding other layers in real time from his guitar, with the kind of frightening accuracy that made his Mannheim show so impressive, there's plenty of energy to be heard here as well.
Metheny takes advantage of looping to build songs from the ground up, one track at a time. "Unity Village," from his recording debut as a leader, Bright Size Life (ECM, 1975), but there in the context of a trio, provides an easy slip into the world of the Orchestrion. Metheny begins with his warm-toned, yet attack-driven electric guitar until about three minutes in, when he begins to add a triggered tambourine. Looping the song's chord changes, panned over to the left channel, allows Metheny to solo over his own accompaniment: a relatively simple premise.
From there it's a dive into the Orchestrion suite, and if it seems as though Metheny is simply running down the original recording in sequence-every track roughly the same length with the exception of the very slightly (under a minute) closer, "Spirit of the Air"-what it does provide is the opportunity to see Metheny in action, not just soloing copiously as he does throughout, but demonstrating a rare ability to trigger all kinds of instruments in real time. And that's the real magic of The Orchestrion Project: the chance to actually see, in great detail, how one man and a stage filled with unmanned instruments can create music that soars, sears and, at times, even swings. The title track is, perhaps, the most complex of the bunch, with lengthy unison lines, start/stop action and instruments rolling in and out-but all under Metheny's in-the-moment control.
With the Orchestrion album/suite only occupying half of the live recording, however, there's even more opportunity to witness the real-time potential of the Orchestrion as a musical instrument . The titles of "Improvisation #2" and "Sueño con México," the latter from 1979's New Chatuauqua (ECM), are accidentally flipped, but it's a small enough (and recognizable) error. New Chautauqua was Metheny's first true solo album-a recording where, built with layers of overdubs, the guitarist plays every part, from acoustic guitars to electric guitars to electric bass. For the first time, however, Metheny can actually play the song live, by combining looping, programming and real-time performance. The ten-minute "Improvisation #2" ("#1" is one of four bonus tracks also included) is even more impressive, as Metheny builds a piece from the ground floor. Even more impressive than managing to trigger the various instruments is Metheny's ability to create a number of loops that he brings in and out of the overall mix.