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Pat Metheny: One Man's Band

Tom Greenland By

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In plays such as Medea and Alcestis, the ancient Greek tragedian Euripides was roundly criticized, even parodied, for his use of an artificial plot device or deus ex machina ("god from the machine"), because it violated narrative logic and challenged the audience's suspension of disbelief. Guitarist Pat Metheny, never one to shy away from wrathful gods, has taken a bold step on his latest tour: eliminating his band in favor of a miraculous machine able to extend and expand his musical visions. Does this negate the human feel and interactivity at the heart of jazz performance or is it a breath of fresh air, winds of change ushering in new solutions to old problems? One man's band is another man's machine.

Few jazz artists have reached the stature of Metheny, who, if not exactly a household name, nevertheless enjoys public accolades more associated with the echelons of rock stardom than that of your typical jazz icon. Yet he's no sell-out, no watered-down, genre-straddling, crossover opportunist, but a true seeker, willing to take chances, willing to risk his hard-won audience with ambitious and adventurous projects. His 17 Grammy awards (!) are matched by his top-of-the-poll rankings in 'serious' jazz-zines. Moreover, he has achieved an instantly recognizable, signature sound that separates him from the proactive pack of post-Jim Hall modernists like Bill Frisell, John Scofield and Mike Stern that moved guitar playing into the new millennium.

Since his first release as a leader, 1975's Bright Size Life, a trio outing with the late great bassist Jaco Pastorius and world-beat drummer Bob Moses, up to his most recent, Orchestrion, Metheny has been a distinctive voice in this music, combining homespun Midwestern Americana (he came up in the Kansas City music scene), angular neobop, avant-impressionism and a type of tone-poetry only possible in the evolving technosphere. His dreamy fusion of folk, rock and jazz is well documented in his work with the Pat Metheny Group (PMG)—with Lyle Mays, Steve Rodby and Paul Wertico completing the core quartet—while his 'straight-ahead' work is featured in fine trio and quartet outings such as Question and Answer (with Dave Holland and Roy Haynes), Dream Teams (with Sonny Rollins), Trio 99>00 and Live (with Larry Grenadier and Bill Stewart), Metheny Mehldau and Quartet (with Brad Mehldau, Grenadier and Jeff Ballard) and Day Trip (with Christian McBride and Antonio Sanchez).

Metheny's free-form leanings emerge in works like 80/81 (with Dewey Redman et al.), Song X (with Ornette Coleman), The Sign of 4 (recorded live at the Knitting Factory with Derek Bailey) and Zero Tolerance for Silence, this last a noisy collage that challenged even his staunchest fans. The guitarist's penchant for technological enhancements may be heard on New Chautauqua, where he overdubbed all the guitars and basses; Letter from Home and Secret Story, two heavily produced PMG projects, and the soundtrack to Imaginary Day, featuring his 42-string "pikasso guitar"—all precedents for Orchestrion, an outing that gives new meaning to concepts like 'overdubbing' and 'human feel.'

Remember those old movies where characters got spooked watching ghostly hands on a player piano? Metheny's Orchestrion apparatus is basically a highly-evolved player piano, only the ghost in his machine is computer sequencing software, MIDI triggering and a complex set of pneumatic (air pressure) and solenoid (electromagnetic) switches hooked up to robotic instruments. The labyrinthine linkage includes Yamaha Disklavier keyboards, a bottle organ (with wind-blown, liquid-filled glass piping), mallet instruments like marimba and vibraphone and a hodgepodge of guitars, basses, drums and percussion. No mere remix of sampled sounds, these acoustic and acoustic-electric instruments are actually played in real-time by mechanical sticks, mallets, felt-covered bars, feather dusters, strumming robotic arms and whatnot, right before your very eyes and ears. The relatively sensitive solenoid switches transfer details of touch, timing and dynamics to the instruments, reproducing rhythms and textures that closely mirror Metheny's musical taste. It's close enough to human to fool even the most discerning of listeners: in a recent JazzTimes blindfold listening test, former PMG bassist Mark Egan instantly recognized the guitarist's playing on a cut from Orchestrion but had trouble identifying the other 'bandmembers.'

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