Pat Metheny’s Got a Brand New Bag

  The Orchestrion Project 

By Dr. Richard Niles

Most guitarists would be satisfied to have a fine instrument or two and a nice amp and maybe a few cool digital devices. Not Pat Metheny. For the past 35 years he has been on a constant mission not only to express his art, but to expand its boundaries. Although a few other artists have done this, very few have done it again and again. And again! That small list might include Miles Davis, The Beatles, and Picasso (I know he’s not a musician but I couldn’t think of anyone else!).

One could justifiably call Metheny a "Serial Innovator." He started with creating a new music, created by blending the sensibility of Wes Montgomery, the Beatles, and Miles with country and Latin music. That tasty recipe sounded like no one other than himself. It was manifested, courtesy of a mind-blowing technique obtained through practicing 8-10 hours a day while other kids were playing baseball and falling out of tree houses.

His technique was given emotion by developing a very personal form of phrasing, holding his pick in an unusual manner: backwards, playing with the round end instead of the pointy bit! Uncomfortable as this looks (and feels — I’ve tried it!), it does result in an unusually round, full, thick, emotive sound with a softer attack than other jazz guitarists. His particular way of sliding into a note is what I call a "jazz dwee," which would certainly have been directly inspired by Wes Montgomery or Jim Hall. But it also allowed him to make a bluesy smear without resorting to bending the string in a rock manner.

He then calculatedly searched for and found a new electric guitar sound. While studying with Metheny in 1974 he walked up to me in the hall and said, "I've found it!" The "it" was the Lexicon Prime Time with which he created an entrancing jazz guitar sound with multiple delays— as if he had set up his amp in a Norwegian fjord. Everybody loved it. Did Metheny rest on his laurels? What do you think?

No, ever the artistic shark moving forward in the creative waters, he created a new guitar-synth sound which became another Metheny trademark. (The fact that I myself have never been crazy about this sound is not as important as the fact that Metheny and a lot of his fans think it’s pretty cool.) He then went on to develop a gaggle of new guitar-like instruments; the fretless acoustic guitar, the 42-string Pikasso guitar, the baritone guitar (not that it matters, but I really like this one!), and the Pat Metheny signature guitars for Ibanez (I love those too!).

Then of course there are all the Grammy-devouring albums, his innovative partnership with Lyle Mays, and the various incarnations of The Pat Metheny Group redefining the meaning of the word "jazz group" (O.K., that's two words – so sue me!). And the other great musical collaborations (Charlie Hayden, Brad Meldhau, Jim Hall), the film scores, and the orchestral stuff!

But all that wasn’t enough for the kid from Lee's Summit, Missouri. He had to create an Orchestrion! If you haven't already heard about it, Metheny explains (much more succinctly than I could), it's "a method of developing ensemble-oriented music using acoustic and acoustoelectric musical instruments that are mechanically controlled in a variety of ways using solenoids and pneumatics… On top of these layers of acoustic sound, I add my conventional electric-guitar playing as an improvised component."

There are many interviews and webpages you can read about the mechanics of how he does this. The point is that I showed up at the Barbican Hall in London March 10, 2010, to see Pat playing on a stage filled with instruments being played by Metheny-programed "robots." And the 2000 people in the concert hall had never seen anything like it. The unique means whereby the music was performed was impossible to ignore — we could see the stage — the concert was pretty clearly called "ORCHESTRION."

That it is done to an extremely high standard would be expected with Metheny. But the instruments are programed with such musicality that ex-Metheny drummer Danny Gottlieb wrote me an email saying the drums sounded so natural, "it sounds like the way I approached playing rhythms."

But the most important thing about the gig was that when Metheny started playing, the compositions were so emotive and beautifully written that I didn’t think AT ALL about how they were being manifested. I wasn’t listening to computers or machines. The message was far more important and fascinating than the medium. Every person there was captivated by the music itself — including Metheny.

Proof of this is that the morning of the concert he sent me an email saying, "Check out the ascending guide-tone line in the ballad... fourth tune of the orch set live... that is the best part of the whole thing for me!" This shows the essence of the Pat Metheny I have known since 1974 — an obsessive music lover who is bursting with enthusiam to show the world this hip new thing he's found. That infectious smile beams with the sheer optimistic wonder of music, and of making it in as many joyous ways as he can think of.

So yes, Orchestrion is a fascinating, groundbreaking project — mind-boggling and amazing — and let's not forget FUN and WAY COOL. But as Metheny says, "it's not the guitar I'm playing—it's the idea." As crazy and wonderful as this fabulous music machine may be, without the depth of the compositions it would just be a clever gimmick instead of a deeply rewarding experience. It's not the Ochestrion — it's the music.

Music Editor Dr. Richard Niles is the author of "The Pat Metheny Interviews" published by Hal Leonard,
an excerpt which can be seen in this issue.

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