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Live Review

Pat Metheny: Orchestrion Tour, Montreal

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Pat Metheny
Orchestrion Tour
Place des Arts
Montreal, Canada

October 12, 2010

Curiosity. More than anything else it was this that made guitarist/composer Pat Metheny's Orchestrion Tour concert at Montreal's Place des Arts complex (another stop on his successful 120-plus major-cities world tour) something to truly anticipate.

I can't claim being a true Metheny fan, my leanings are more towards Bill Frisell, but, while Metheny's compositional style speaks far less to me than to others, I do have a deep respect for his inventiveness and sheer virtuosity, as well as for anyone who can team with Ornette Coleman to make an album like Song X (Nonesuch, 1986). Nevertheless, it was the wildly experimental concept of Metheny's Orchestrion that was, for me, the attraction to this show. The idea is utterly fascinating—after all, this is a solo show that features an entire orchestra; how can the ability to control all those instruments while playing on just one guitar be anything but intriguing?

And so, the Théâtre Maisonneuve at Montreal's Place des Arts, with a seating capacity of 1,458, was packed, the crowd equally brimming with anticipation, theirs perhaps different from mine. Montrealers have a strange way of inexplicably embracing and developing a deep-rooted bond with certain musicians; Metheny is one of them. Truly quaint folks in several ways, and an inherent part of the city's appeal, it's no doubt why Metheny has always been so generous to Montrealers. But this also implies an audience that's equally quick to voice any disappointments, and also quite loud about it.

That curiosity? What drew so many? Was it love for the Orchestrion (Nonesuch, 2010) album and project? Was it Montrealers' love of the man? Or was it the freakshow, a That's Incredible-worthy feat of one man making music with so many instruments at once? In other words, did the crowd really know what to expect, or was this going to be another Lou Reed at the Montreal Jazz Fest fiasco from this past summer, where more than half of the audience booed Reed and walked out for not playing his classics, clearly having purchased their tickets unaware that he'd been billed as playing free form music with John Zorn and Laurie Anderson?

For these reasons it was no surprise that, the moment the lights dimmed, a standing ovation awaited Metheny's stage entry, nor to see Metheny glowing with that "good to be home" feeling. Without any introductions, he sat down and played two acoustic numbers, opening up with "Unrequited," from Metheny Meldhau (Nonesuch, 2006). The second—a crowd pleaser in every sense—was warmly applauded with the first recognizable melodic notes of his 1974 original "The Sun in Montreal."

During these two songs, everyone anticipated the moment when the carnival fair-like array of instruments, tuned bottles, pneumatics and all that surrounded Metheny were going to light up and spring to life.

Metheny then switched guitars, taking his outlandish 42-string Pikasso guitar (custom-built by Linda Manzer) from a stagehand, and everyone "ahh-ed," believing that the Orchestrion machine was about to be set into motion, and acting as proof that the crowd really didn't know what to expect. This still wasn't Metheny's Orchestrion, but another solo "solo"—an improvised, exotic and harpy new-age sounding number, which seemed to test the audience's patience when it became clear to all that the rest of the fanfare wasn't going to join in. Another guitar switch, and this time the crowd didn't know how to react; the guitar was too plain looking. More proof? This was his Orchestrion guitar.

Metheny didn't lay out the fireworks all at once. The only accompaniment to his first Orchestrion-backed piece, set to "Unity Village," from his iconic Bright Size Life (ECM, 1976), was a castanets contraption marking time. His second Orchestrion piece—an improvised number—finally introduced the full-array of visible instruments, which included a Yamaha Disklavier piano, marimba, bottles, synthesizer, and a mix of percussion instruments. The piece sounded like generic jazz, and never really managed to take off; the crowd's attention, which had perked with the first Orchestrion piece, seemed to hum with disillusionment by the end of the second. Was that really it, the Orchestrion?

Before anyone had time to really ponder the question, unexpectedly, the curtain was swiftly raised, a conceptual art-like montage containing a vast array of instruments revealed, and the crowd burst with stupefaction. Madly impressive; a veritable instrument fetishist's fantasy minus the wind instruments. A man, a guitar, and one hell of a complex machine. Metheny glowed with that extremely infectious excitement, energy, and pride of a young child at play with a long-desired, sparkling new toy. A man attempting to recapture his youth? The machine exploded to life.

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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