In the expansive liner notes accompanying Pat Metheny’s latest project Orchestrion the storied jazz guitarist reflects on his days as a little kid visiting relatives in Wisconsin and sneaking downstairs to the basement to noodle around with an antique player piano, now the inspiration for his new album.
Decades later, riding a career and repute capable of withstanding the perils inherent in such an ambitious project, Metheny brings forth a remarkable piece of work — an entire CD composed on a modern extension of the player piano model, accumulating a vast array of instruments (piano, bass, guitarbot, percussion) controlled through a variety of mechanical means: midi technology, some using programmed electrical mechanisms activating solenoids or blown air.
This may all sound to the casual observer like an outsized Rube Goldberg device, an impressive but ultimately pointless expression of ambition and vanity, but the results, especially in the lengthy and fiendishly complex 15-minute title track, are spectacularly organic and uncannily consistent with Metheny’s alchemistic blend of heartland themes and warmly greased jazz proclivities. Dizzying syncopation bouts between Metheny’s guitar and piano, tickled at their fringes by tuned percussion, buoyant and skittish trap drumming, cascading fills accenting and provoking broad harmonic flourishes.
We asked if the process of assembling the instrumentation, designed and assembled by a handful of manufacturing outfits around the country, presented a challenge to Metheny’s writing for the project.
“The issue was a combination of what I thought would work, what would sound good, but also what exactly I could get done in a way that would ultimately also be roadworthy since I knew that there would be 150 or so live concerts to follow,” Metheny says. “Actually I wrote a whole bunch of music while waiting for the instruments to get completed — and none of it worked when applied to the stuff as it came in. Not one note of it.
“On the other hand, once I had stuff in hand, a million other things started to show up, things that really suited the reality of what these guys seemed to be good at. In that way, it was not unlike anything else — I tend to write to the strengths of the players in each project, I want to take advantage of what they do well and avoid the things that they are not so good at.”
We were particularly intrigued by the notion of blown bottles, used again to great effect on the title track, disembodied voices laying out long single-note voices beneath the busy lead lines, resonant with some of the more thematic Metheny Group compositions of 25 years ago.
“I had all this plucking and smacking and hitting stuff, but I really needed some air. And I always loved the sound of blowing over bottles. Of course, that is connected to what happens with pipe organs, so I started looking around at pipe organ companies and was very lucky to stumble onto the Petersen company where I spoke to a guy who knew exactly what I was going for. They built these two instruments to match the range of the guitar, which is why some of the bottles needed to be so big (to get down to the low E).”
The ultimate test, of course, is whether Metheny could bring this thing out on the road — unlike many of his contemporaries, Metheny has grown and sustained his fan base well past the tight nightclub and jazz-rag elite cadre of aficionados by years of touring, in group, quartet and trio settings. Not taking this out was never an option. We recall, wincingly, a solo tour Joe Zawinul did years ago with just him buried deep in keyboards and soloing over samples and pre-programmed compositions. The beleaguered keyboardist spent half the show wrestling the electronics.
“I remember that too, and as much as I always loved Joe, that was a great example of what not to do. This is very different in every way,” Metheny says. “The first night was pretty scary, but at least as much because of the difficulty of the music. Besides everything else, this is among the hardest bunch of notes I have ever had to play.
“To a certain degree it was calculated risk — but on the other hand, being a guitar player, there is a risk that a string could break at any moment. The idea would be to be prepared for that in a very proactive way, by making sure you have good strings, change them a lot, etc.
“I am knocking on wood as I say this, but we are now close to 70 shows in and I have had more problems with picks and strings than with the [electronic] stuff at this point.”
On the Bill
Pat Metheny Orchestrion plays the Paramount Theater on Wednesday, May 5. Doors at 8 p.m. Tickets are $45 to $65. 1621 Glenarm Place, Denver, 303-623-0106.