Album review. Pat Metheny's unique experiment in performing with the backing of a programmable but very analogue backing band
Release date: January 26th, 2010
Recorded at Legacy/MSR Studio NYC October 2009
Pat Metheny's unique experiment in performing with the backing of a programmable but very analogue backing band must be unique in jazz since the days that Scott Joplin produced rolls for the player piano.
In his liner notes and in the EPK for the album, Pat Metheny goes into detail about his motivation in getting the Orchestrion built and composing, recording and touring with it.
Four years earlier, Boston guitar technician Mark Herbert had solved a problem set him by Pat Metheny: how could a second guitar be controlled by foot pedal? The solution - to use a solenoid activated device to pluck the strings - set off the idea of doing more and configuring a whole accompanying band in this way.
Pat Metheny was reminded of the player piano in his grandfather's basement that he used to be fascinated by as a youngster.
The device would be analogue, not digital. The sounds would not be digital samples approximating real instruments. The drum sound would be produced by a real stick hitting a real drum, a xylophone sound by a real hammers striking a real xylophone. Solenoid control would be the basis of achieving this.
The EPK for the album features Pat Metheny giving a personal tour of the orchestrion and showing how it works:
An impressive list of inventors was commissioned to build the instruments and realise the project (Eric Singer and LEMUR (League of Electronic Musical Urban Robots), Ken Caulkins and personnel at Ragtime, Mark Herbert, Cyril Vance, and The Peterson Company). As a finished machine, it is truly impressive.
Significantly, the orchestrion is fully addressable from Pat Metheny's guitar for programing for composition and performance. The technology appears to be essentially the same as MIDI programming via computer except that the musical notes are produced as real analogue sounds produced by piano strings, cymbals, xylophones and drums being hit rather than sampled digital sounds. In a hint of something more Heath Robinson in concept, wind sounds are produced by blowing air across a series of bottles filled to different levels with water. Unusual, but it works just fine.
There is something eccentric and wonderful about the whole project - a sure sign that the delight in music that has driven Pat Metheny's jazz since his emergence has not been dimmed by the success that he has achieved.
What he notes when playing with the orchestrion is the sense that, though he has programmed all the parts, when he performs on top of the accompaniment there is a feeling of response, that he is able to 'lean into' the music and interact with it. How far this differs from performing against prerecorded multitracks in a recording studio is difficult to tell, however.
The album features five new Pat Metheny compositions.
The opening title track is uptempo vintage Pat Metheny riding on a tumultuous backing that at times hits superspeed. 'Expansion' and 'Spirit Of The Air' are in similar vein. Somewhere in there is a distant reminder of 'Tubular Bells'.
'Entry Point' is a slower, more atmospheric piece with greater clarity of the lead guitar part that builds towards a gentle climax.'Soul Search' is a ballad, similarly slow paced, with characteristic Pat Metheny guitar and Joe Locke like xylophone accompaniment. The slower pieces with less overlaid backings seem to be the most successful.
A tour is underway. Seeing the orchestrion and Pat Metheny performing live promises to be one of the jazz events of the year.
To preorder Pat Metheny 'Orchestrion' from amazon
Excerpt from the track 'Expansion'
Album liner notes
LEMUR home page
Jazz at amazon.com
100 Greatest Store
RETURN TO: Jazz New Releases
RETURN TO: Main Page