Pat Metheny – Orchestrion (Jazz CD, 2010) Review

A few weeks ago I posted a video of Pat Metheny announcing his Orchestrion project. The video – and all of the machinery – were quite cool, but what really matters is the final product. Well, Orchestrion was released on January 26th, and I’ve had the chance to give it several listenings and separate the coolness of the technical accomplishment from the actual musical results.

Pat Metheny is one of the strongest voices in modern instrumental music over the last 35 year. His guitar style and sound is immediately recognizable, and he has crafted a compositional style that is full of both through-composed and improvised segments, with an accessible feel that is also harmonically complex. He has produced loads of recordings as a solo artist, with his ‘Pat Metheny Group’, and in collaboration with others.

For his Orchestrion project, as I noted before, he brought in a team of technical inventors and experts to help him construct an amazing bit of instrumentation that he can at once control through footpedals and other means while also triggering some off of his guitar, allowing him to adapt the flow of music on the fly yet also having a large enough set of preset musical architecture that what we get are fully formed songs and not just some rote phrases repeated ad nauseum while he jammed on top.

Here are the songs (times in parentheses), with some general thoughts:

Orchestrion (15:48)– This is the piece that was featured in the introduction video, so as I listened my mind went back to the visuals of exactly HOW all of that densely arranged layering was happening. There is a wonderfully organic ebb and flow to the music that feels much like a band and little like the mechanical construct that you know is actually producing the sound.

Entry Point (10:28)– Entry Point opens almost like a dirge and feels very mechanically driven, but in a good way. The pacing remains slow throughout, yet the mood changes subtly from somber to hopeful as the song blossoms from a thinly orchestrated ballad to a rich tapestry against which Metheny weaves a tremendously inventive melody.

Expansion (8:35)– If someone told me that this was a bonus track from 2002’s ‘Speaking of Now’ I would have no problem believing them. That isn’t a bad thing – that was a wonderful recording and this is a very well done song. However, with about 1:30 left, the song transforms for a short bit into an intriguing rhythmic exploration that fits perfectly but also tells much about what Metheny learned during this project.

Soul Search (9:19)– Another somewhat familiar feeling composition, this one reminding me more of some of the songs from his 1992 masterpiece Secret Story but also juxtaposed with elements from the wonderful 1989 Question & Answer trio recordings. The former is very much a personal statement, which is telling as much of the song really does sound like a ‘Soul Search’. But the entire middle section has a wonderfully improvised feel that is really human in its approach and makes you feel connected to the deeply personal statements at the beginning and end.

Spirit of the Air (7:45) – The closing song really brings it all together – group and solo, personal statement and large scale composition, soaring melodic beauty and complex rhythmic lines all brought together with a deftness and accessibility that it is amazing to believe that it all came from one guy and a bunch of triggered sounds.

Overall Thoughts
Whenever Pat Metheny releases a new recording it is a big event in the jazz world. In 2005 the Pat Metheny Group released The Way Up, and the single 68-minute piece was a real highlight of where he and long-time collaborator had matured to in terms of compositional style and prowess.

Of course, the problem with all of this immediate attention is that other great recordings tend to fall by the wayside. That is just the way things go in all forms of entertainment, where some great art languishes while others get the limelight (and that is ignoring how pretty much all great art has lost the spotlight to mass market pseudo-art product).

For example, on the same day as Orchestrion was released, controversial experimental pianist Matthew Shipp released a great new recording of solo piano titled 4D. That amazing collection of music appeared near the bottom of my weekly ‘new music releases’ email, so I would have missed it if I wasn’t already looking. Anyway, back to Orchestrion …

Now Metheny is back by himself with a recording that continues his technical and compositional evolution, but adds to it with the technical challenges of putting together an Orchestrion that is mechanically directed yet needs to sound thoroughly musical and organically evolving throughout.

The question that really stuck with me through my first several listenings of this music was: should I care about HOW it was made? I mean, should I care about whether the music is coming from MIDI synthesizers or other musicians or solenoid-triggered bells? I don’t think it really should matter in any way but one: in the video he talks about the new places this process took him, so it is fair to ask not just whether the compositions work and if the music works, but whether he has really explored new territory.

In terms of ‘new discoveries’, my initial answer was that Orchestrion really didn’t break new ground. Most of the music brings to mind other Metheny compositions from the past couple of decades. Yet by the second or third time through – especially listening with headphones – I was beginning to really dig beneath the lilting phrases and get into the amazingly complex inner structure. I really like Nik Bärtsch’s Ronin, and his use of the minimalist compositional styles of Steven Reich and others, and so as I listened in more detail I appreciated how much of that compositional style was brought to bear in producing this music.

And to me that is the mastery of this music. Metheny has crafted compositions that are deep and rich and very personal, yet the use of his Orchestrion has led him to explore new rhythmic ways to express his style without abandoning his talent for bringing complex music to his audience in a way that is immediately memorable and accessible. He now extends that palette to deep and complex rhythms, while simultaneously producing one of the most satisfying musical experiences in recent memory.

Where to Buy: MP3 Store

Price: $8.90 (CD available for $13.99)

What I Like:
– Great compositions and wonderful arrangements of interesting sounds
– Dense harmonic and rhythmic structure demands repeat listenings
– Fantastic organic experience from mechanical devices

What Needs Improvement:
– Despite all of the technical stuff going on, this ends up sounding largely like just a great collection of Metheny compositions.

Here once again is the introductory video for Orchestrion (featuring the title track):

Categories: Music Diary, Reviews


5 replies

  1. I’ve attended his live Orchestrion show recently; the live performance is what you SHOULD listen, in comparison to the recording. WOW!!


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