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Live Reviews

Pat Metheny: Orchestrion Tour, Montreal

By Published: October 23, 2010
Though truly unique and quite different in its own way, the result was far less interesting than any of Tod Machover's Hyper-instruments projects in that it lacked the ability to truly capture the minute expressions and personal idiosyncrasies so precious to the richness of the whole. Further, managing the machine also placed restrictions on Metheny's playing, but beyond the taxing task of controlling these various robotics-played instruments and loops whilst playing the guitar too, the accompanying Orchestrion offered a certain flatness which, indeed, captured full well that inseparable essence of Orchestrions and player pianos: that mechanical exactitude, though without the full dynamic limitations of old. But where does the real interest in all of this lie? It really wasn't obvious that Metheny was controlling each instrument; it was easy to believe that we were merely watching Metheny being Metheny, but to preprogrammed instruments, the blinking lights when activated offering nothing more than eye-candy.

Despite being impressive in conception, technology, and the guitarist's handling, Metheny's live Orchestrion project failed to truly tap into new modes of self-expression. The end result wasn't an honest conversation between the guitarist and his "band," be it synthetic, as much as it was a totalitarian speech under one solitary voice: Metheny's actual guitar playing. The songs were still typically Metheny-esque, but with the Orchestrion backing him up like a stiff, way over-rehearsed and way over-staffed junior band. Other than the Suite pieces, which were clearly prepared in addition to being well-thought out and orchestrated to highlight the Orchestrion's value, the rest of the Orchestrion-made music had that harsh dissonance of too many instruments, too many of them playing the same note on the same beat. The passages offered little rhythmic variations; the music entirely lacked the subtlety of well-placed and paced silences and raw emotions that shape any conversation. Fusion jazz with techno music structure and limitations?

Would reducing the number of instruments improve matters? For on the other hand, the improvised piece Metheny performed with his Marc Herbert custom-built "foot-stomping guitar"—a guitar also equipped with foot-pedal controlled percussive mallets within the casing—was really interesting, the interfaces allowing him much more freedom and articulation. Here, Metheny successfully combined his unique self-expression with his love of technology. This aspect was also more evident in his closing number, an improvisation that textured several guitar loops to drawn-out, synth-dominant cyclic harmonies that also featured a robotic accordion, and to which Metheny eventually added a synth-guitar lead on a separate, stand-mounted guitar.

Metheny addressed the crowd for the first time after just over an hour of playing, at which time he explained the Orchestrion idea and its roots, also strongly emphasizing how happy he was to see that his project was, so far, so well received by Montrealers, by bringing up that special bond. And indeed, the crowd loved it. Montrealers got to hear the Pat Metheny they know and love. He was still the front man, his guitar skills and smooth, sustaining lead sound more than amply showcased.

From ballads to fusion to Coleman-inspired free form, the well-planned, well-structured show covered Metheny's entire range and displayed his strong showmanship; after all, he did manage to retain his full audience for a full three, intermission-free hours that offered 15 songs and two encores.

The Orchestrion is a great toy, but, no doubt, more fun to play than to watch and listen. Still, Metheny did a wonderfully coordinated and adroit job of controlling his machine. A breakthrough for automated music and one-man bands? Any objections are purely based on aesthetic considerations: the technology, not the music, took center-stage. The novelty wore off fairly quickly and, leaving the show, there was a sense of not having had a full dose of that element so appealing about jazz: the pure, instantaneous moments of profound humanness.

Metheny's Orchestrion show wasn't disappointing, however; my questions were answered, and his new project experienced first-hand. What waits to be seen is just how far Metheny will be able to exploit this new technology in future projects, if at all.


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