Review : Pat Metheny Orchestrion

Review: Pat Metheny Orchestrion
(Barbican Hall, February 10th 2010, Review by Rod Fogg)

Stage left, there’s a vibraphone, behind that a baby grand, and further over a tall cabinet containing glass jars half filled with water. A glass harmonica? Stage right, a full-size marimba, more glass jars, and some finger cymbals. The backdrop is a red curtain, which you can tell by the bulges is hiding something. All the instruments have gadgets attached, little solenoid-driven beaters hover over every note of the marimba and vibes. There is a set of four vertical metal plates, each with a slot in the middle, one set on each side of the stage.

Pat began with three acoustic tracks: Make Peace, and Sound of Water from his recent Brad Mehldau collaboration and Unity Village which dates back to his debut album Bright Size Life. Unity Village introduces the triggered finger cymbals and he uses a looper to duet with himself. Gradually the red curtain is drawn back revealing row after row of DIY-store shelving crammed with all manner of percussion instruments (drums, cymbals, hi-hats, glockenspiel) bass guitar, acoustic guitar, electric piano and so on, all operated by the same electro-mechanical means.

Pat plays an intro, the piano joins in – it’s programmed – then the percussion and the bass and all sorts of other sounds. The sliders in the metal plates zip about like crazy. Lights flash on and off behind the glass jars. It’s hard to say what they are actually doing, but they look cool. It’s like playing with backing tapes, except that every sound you hear is actually being performed acoustically in front of you; you can see everything moving, and every solenoid has a flashing l.e.d. light pulsing in time.

Pat can trigger sounds himself – he demonstrates this by programming up a backing track on-the-fly. The instruments will also follow the guitar note for note – Broadway Blues (also from Bright Size Life) was accompanied by random, but rhythmic, tinkling, clattering, thumping and wheezing. Strange, but fun.

Soaring above (“conventionally” it says in the programme notes) is Metheny’s guitar -effortless, pure-toned, inventive, melodic and yet often (surprisingly) scattering impressionistic dissonance like broken glass on a smooth road. The main part of the concert was the five tracks from the Orchestrion album, played as a continuous suite. Many seem inspired by Reichian minimalism and worked well in a live context. It all went swimmingly until, revving up for a grand finale, Pat began to play the opening montuno of Phase Dance. And the toys refused to join in. He played it solo instead, which seemed like a bargain to me. It was no good though, he’d broken it, and the Orchestrion stood silently by as the concert ended as quietly as it had begun, with a couple of acoustic solos.

Aurally and visually, it’s astonishing, weird – and maybe hilarious. Musically, it’s like nothing you’ve ever heard before.

Categories: miscellaneous

14 replies »

  1. Lisa Gee commented on Rod's review on Facebook

    'I loved the sheer innocent joy of the Orchestrion – the child's dream-made-reality of it. Was up in the back of the circle which, frustratingly, was too far away to see what everything was, but was reminded of the La Rochelle Museum of Automata.

    'Not sure I believe Metheny's claim that it's all solenoid-driven, though: I prefer to think he's providing gainful employment for hundreds of Oompa Loompas… :-)'

  2. I received this from a disappointed LondonJazz reader who wishes to remain anonymous

    For fear of insulting die-hard fans of Pat Metheny and the world of jazz at large, I am a fan, a BIG fan.

    A trip to the Barbican is a bit of a schlep; London traffic and a rubbish meal in the in-house restaurant didn’t quite set the relaxed tone we were hoping for. But no matter, we were there for sustenance of our musical soul, not our bellies.

    Taking our seats on time as instructed, we dutifully waited 15 minutes for the man himself to take, literally, centre stage. Whilst waiting, I attempted friendly banter with the woman next to me but that’s clearly not what you do in London, and so, ignored, I settled for mounting excitement, a feeling shared by the heaving auditorium, you just knew there was something very special about to happen – except it didn’t.

    For me, one reason for enjoying live jazz music is the spontaneity and feeding off the energy the musicians generate. Much of the time, Metheny performed with his back to the crowd while he, ‘connected’ with the instruments.

    Maybe he expected the music to speak for itself. In that case the piano and bass need elocution lessons; a master class in sound engineering and subtlety this was not.

    Pat Metheny once said, “There's more bad music in jazz than any other form. Maybe that's because the audience doesn't really know what's happening.”

    Well, this time we did and you can do better, Mr Metheny. Realising a childhood dream is verging on self-indulgence. Using technical wizardry at a time when musicians are desperate to encourage more people to support live jazz is just not ‘cricket’.

  3. One of the reasons I came from Australia to live here in London was to get a chance to see Pat Metheny play live, as he has made it very clear that he will never tour Australia, so being at the concert was a real experience.

    It was live, organic and awesome. hats off to Mr Metheny for progressing and further demonstrating his amazing music and creativity. As for the Orchestrion breaking down? Well I think it all happened because Pat dared to walk up to the machine and turned the bass volume down. After that, the Orchestrion refused to play, took its instruments and went home. 🙂

  4. Those who are not listening to (or are unable to appreciate) the compositions and the improvisation will draw their attention to the technology. To concentrate on the Orchestrion (fascinating as it is) as a concept is to miss the point. Just as a fork is an 'instrument' to get nourishment, the Orchestrion (and indeed a guitar or a saxophone) is only an instrument. The important thing is the food, not the fork – the music, not the instrument.

  5. Dear anonymous-
    thanks so much for being ctitical and honest. I thought this project seemed “self-indulgent”, and I also fear that I'll miss the live group experience. All to many are too eager to praise him which is so sad.

  6. Pat Metheny has been performing music for over 35 years. He has a wide range of styles and formats that he has worked in. I've been listening to his work or almost thirty of those years. While I don't always like the results of one of the musical paths he takes I am always willing to follow him to see were he goes. He has pleased me much more often than he has disappointed me. Pat Metheny is not any more self-indulgent than any other musician. They, hopefully, play things that interest and please themselves and offer it up for public consumption.

    The integrity and passion with which he creates and plays his music is what keeps me coming back for more. I look forward to seeing him in concert next month.

  7. I have tickets to see Pats show in Santa Fe,NM on April 16th. I have seen him several times over many years and have never been anything but amazed. I can't think of many other artists in any music category that could pull this off better than Pat. I try to put myself in his shoes. He has accomplished everything any Jazz artist would dream of already. Played all over the world. This guy has written some of the most beautiful compositions I have ever heard. I think he is the Mozart of the new age. I will admit this seems like something one would do at their home studio for kicks. It doesn't seem that appealing for an audience. But what the heck, I will go and try to be open minded.

  8. AFter a certain age travelling through London to see a concert by anyone – The Beatles with John and George resurrected, Miles invoked by Satan himself, whoever, loses its lustre. I'll defend club jazz or small venues till I croak but being herded into concert halls for expensive tickets, then drinks, parking, babysitters etc we have better things to do with our time and money.

  9. I am very much a Pat Metheny fan, but being a multi track musician myself, can't help but feel it was almost a step down for him. I think what happens to people like Pat who get to the top of the mountain, which he certainly has, they get bored, and try something, sometimes anything to get that excitement going again from years past. I bought the Orchestrion CD, and like it, but not a lot.

  10. Review Orechestrion in Pittsburgh, PA 10.03.10
    It does have a strong playful flair. Pat enjoys it. Some of the songs/improvs were overlayered.
    Musician will wonder. Engineeres will be enticed. Not everything is perfect. This is OK.

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