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Pat Metheny: The Orchestrion Project

John Kelman By

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Pat Metheny
The Orchestrion Project
Eagle Eye Media

When guitarist Pat Metheny released Orchestrion (Nonesuch) in 2010, it almost immediately became one of his most controversial recordings since Zero Tolerance for Silence (Warner Bros., 1992). Why, in a jazz world, where interaction with other musicians is so fundamental to its spirit, to its raison d'être, would one of the most important guitarists of his generation not only release an album that replaced live musicians with a complex, pneumatic and solenoid-driven beast of an instrument called an Orchestrion, but actually embark on a massive world tour to promote it?

With Metheny, an ever-learning musical sponge, the nutshell answer is: because he could. The more detailed reply would address Metheny's childhood interest in his massively sophisticated, 21st century update of a 19th century instrument-or, rather, collection of instruments, meant to play orchestral music but without the players-and his goal of creating a modern version that would allow him to control the entire seemingly unwieldy beast from one single controller: his guitar. Those who found the concept intrinsically flawed won't necessarily be won over by The Orchestrion Project-a kind-of-live DVD (also available in Blu-Ray and 3D Blu-Ray) that, rather than capturing an actual concert in front of an audience, was another kind of studio recording, but this time expanded to include the entire repertoire taken on the road in 2010, instead of just the five-track, 52-minute original recording. But for those who weren't able to catch a show on the tour, whether or not they are skeptical of the concept or not? Well, they just find themselves warming considerably to the concept.

That Metheny has responded to critical suggestions that Orchestrion would be a one-album, one-tour phenomenon, never to be heard or seen again, by continuing to bring a smaller, more portable version of the instrument on the road for his 2011 reunion tour with bassist Larry Grenadier and drummer Bill Stewart-as well as on one track of his most recent Unity Band (Nonesuch, 2012) and that album's still-ongoing world tour-only makes sense for any who've followed the guitarist since he first emerged in vibraphonist Gary Burton's groups of the mid-1970s.

Fans know that Metheny's ever-growing instrumental arsenal-ranging from regular hollowbody electric guitars to steel and nylon-string acoustic instruments, baritone guitar, 42-string Pikasso guitar, guitar synths and, now, the Orchestrion-know that he's a meticulous developer of new concepts, and new instruments often weigh heavily in the music he's making at any given moment. But once he's honed the instrument or the concept-for example, with the Grammy Award-winning One Quiet Night (Nonesuch, 2003) and What It's All About (Nonesuch, 2012) , both solo acoustic guitar recordings, but the first focusing exclusively on his relatively new six-string baritone acoustic guitar, and the second a more liberal mix of baritone, regular acoustic, nylon-string and Pikasso-rather than being shelved, it becomes simply one more color on his broadening musical palette.

Amongst some of the more cynical criticisms Orchestrion received upon release and during the tour was that it was a way to cut touring costs by eliminating band member salaries and expenses; nothing could be further from the truth. One look at the full Orchestrion on the DVD cover-with pianos, vibraphones, drums, guitars, basses, glass bottles, cymbals, hand percussion and so much more-and thinking about setup and maintenance on the road makes clear that, while the Orchestrion never gets tired or cranky, it's hardly cheap to tour. Technicians for setup and the inevitable issues of breakage on the road and any other unexpected glitches during performance, plus ensuring there are spare parts for the entire beast makes touring Orchestrion a very large, very complicated and very expensive proposition. When Metheny used the mini-version in the fall of 2011 in a Mannheim performance with Grenadier and Stewart, a sudden failure in the midst of a solo piece was just one example of the kinds of unexpected problems that can arise. That would make it necessary to record multiple nights on the tour, in order to get enough usable live materal-something that would increase touring costs even further.


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