Pat Metheny: The Orchestrion Project Live at The Flynn Burington VT

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Pat Metheny
Flynn Center for the Performing Arts
Burlington, Vermont
October 5, 2010

Pat Metheny as one-man band? As mad scientist? As master innovator/musician of the (not-so) new millennium? All those thoughts and perceptions came to mind during the two-plus hours the Missouri-born guitarist and composer turned the MainStage of the Flynn Center for The Performing Arts into a combination of laboratory and classroom.

In all the years Metheny has appeared at the Flynn-eighteen times total as related by artistic director Arne Malina during his halting introduction—he has never appeared solo. Thus, that prospect alone might have enticed more people to come to this early fall show; oddly, the balcony was hardly populated and more than a few on the floor left after the first hour, thereby missing the most fascinating part of the performance.

Certainly those in attendance made up for their number by their concentration, engagement and recognition of what Pat Metheny was doing: he came on stage to applause only a little less rapturous than that which arose during the standing ovation call for an encore. A very audible gasp escaped from the audience when the red curtain rose to reveal the Orchestrion while the artist himself regularly received repeated acclamation from his most rabid devotees scattered throughout the theatre.

Beginning with a half-hour of acoustic numbers, this October 5th appearance was both more and less than might have been expected. It's a measure of the man's expertise that what was clearly a warm-up rose to such a high level of sophistication. On "Last Train Home," to name just one number, the elongated melody lines and undulations of rhythm so prevalent in his improvisations—and by extension his best original compositions—were too obvious to miss, but little less impressive.

The final number of this opening segment, performed on the forty-eight string Pikasso guitar, found Metheny thumping out a rhythm on the body of the instrument in between flourishes of chords, alternated with the precision finger- picking that had suffused the prior numbers. This first interval lent a decidedly intimate touch to the proceedings that proved indispensable as Pat Metheny moved to electric guitar and began to work in tandem with The Orchestrion: there were more than a few moments where it was disconcerting to watch the musician stroll the stage and nod to different sections of devices arrayed around the stage floor and on the three-tiered scaffolding.

And there was an unavoidable air of gimmicky during this segment of the show as well in part because the material composed for the project, like "Soul Search," isn't all that far removed from the usual Metheny Group fare, the conclusion, "Spirit of the Air," even more so than the four others. To be fair, however, watching and hearing Metheny play this material live reveals exactly how much of an accomplishment it is for the sound to be so recognizable. The live performance avoids the sterility of the previously released recording.

Which only made the final hour all that much more impressive, verging at points on the spectacular. Largely comprised of opened-ended renditions of originals and purely improvisational pieces (with "Ferry 'Cross the Mersey" snuck in there for good measure), the air of spontaneity elevated dramatically and entered the realm of modern jazz, the likes of which most of the concertgoers had no doubt experienced before (perhaps more than once with this artist), but here presented in a format no doubt unlike any previous setting or arrangement of material.

Introduced with more than a little modesty and jocularity, Metheny explained the rationale behind his conception and execution of The Orchestrion Project as an outgrowth of childhood fascination with a player piano and earlier work with overdubbing in the recording studio. The later moments of this performance in particular suggested this work of Pat Metheny's is simultaneously an end in itself and a means to a greater understanding of the art of musical improvisation.

With his boyish countenance so often contorted, and his knees bending while his body swayed (though his massive thatch of hair never moved?!), all in a strenuous effort to coax the right notes from his guitar to mesh with the melody, harmony and rhythm erupting behind him, Metheny must have regularly experienced epiphanies: having worked to design and program the Orchestrion, based on his knowledge and experience in writing, recording and performing, and then his work with the device in the spontaneity of the moment, was no doubt as thrilling for him as it was for the observers in the seats. Even the bane of so many Metheny projects, the synthesizer guitar, found itself imbued with some human warmth just before the main part of the show concluded.

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