Album title: Orchestrion
Performer: Pat Metheny
Label: Nonesuch
Playing time: 52'06"
Recorded: USA 2009

The Orchestrion project is definitely unconventional. Who else but the open-minded and talented Pat Metheny could have released such a novel concept album? On stage in Paris, Pat explained his new direction as merging a childhood idea when he used to visit his grand dad in Manitowoc, Wisconsin. There he spent untold hours watching and listening to the family’s player piano and their large collection of piano rolls. He was amazed by the ability of an instrument to play everything mechanically. 50 years later, the dream materializes in Orchestrion as a true achievement and highlight of a long illustrious career.

This solo performance goes beyond all expectations for a first outing and reminds us of the incredible talent of one of the last few giants of jazz. Like Miles or Gill Evans, Pat Metheny once again demonstrates his unequaled ability to explore new territories and concepts. When I first listened to Orchestrion, I was not completely convinced by this new method of recording an orchestra entirely controlled by mechanical solenoids and pneumatics. In my mind there was undoubtedly a lack in dynamics.

The second time, this impression remained. But, I was conscious also that something quite special was afoot. There was a very particular and unusual interaction between the various instruments. As had been the case for me with the most interesting prior Metheny albums like Quartet or The way up, I did not manage to enter into this music immediately. Instead it became a gradual process of taking in all the subtleties of the various musical landscapes the guitarist conjured up - except that here I was aware right off that in the end, the joy of listening would be quite incomparable.  

The concert at the Olympia in Paris also helped. Pat kicked off the show with just a few instruments. This set up a high degree of intimacy as he used to do more commonly in the middle of his previous live outings. A large part of the orchestrion's formidable arsenal remained hidden behind a red curtain. My wife Christine opined that the show would surely become a bit boring with such discrete accompaniment. But this unusual intimacy was not only induced by the spare orchestration of the first numbers. It also derived from how Metheny talked to the audience to explain his new approach.

When the red curtain suddenly rose, Pat began to lean into the Orchestrion compositions in earnest and it really was thrilling. In the third part of the concert, he revisited older material which suddenly didn't seem as convincing as the previous five complex Orchestrion titles had been.

I understood then that far more than a stunt experiment—for just how many instruments a single musician could operate—Pat took his time studying how the various mechanical voices at his disposal might best interact. He had in fact written these new compositions especially for the orchestrion rather than rearrange proven prior material.

Whoa! Orchestrion is an unprecedented work of Jazz which has my personal appreciation for Pat Metheny's output deepen even further. In a previous music review, I'd commented on the experimental music of Philippe Manoury who worked on interactions between violin and electronica. By contrast, Metheny’s work seems wildly more ambitious. From my personal point of view, the fusion between technical engineering and artistic expression is truly remarkable here.

Beyond the technical experiment, Pat Metheny kept firmly fixed on the musical goal. On his website, he declares "...a small number of musicians have been doing similar things in recent years as the mechanics of it all have evolved, particularly with the advent of modern solenoid technology. And naturally, in many ways, much of the experimentation and research in this area has been as much about the technology as the musical result. My only goal here, however, is a musical one.”

The five new tracks of this outing fall in line with Pat Metheny’s familiar style of melodic development. My favorites are undoubtedly the first and last. The opening title track kicks off with a complex long-form melody in which each instrument adds its specific color and texture. It seems to be a deliberate demonstration of the incredible color palette at hand. I think Metheny wanted to maintain a sort of mechanical interaction as obvious for the intro track. Accordingly it reminded me of a music box, albeit a very sophisticated one.

The closer "Spirit of the Air" is arguably the most successful number, making it hard to fathom how a single performer could do it all. The number begins with a figure that repeats until it develops into the main melodic line. The interaction between bass line, chimes and guitar is terrific and the way the guitar riffs over the rhythm section creates a compelling illusion of hearing a real band of live musicians. With or without the Pat Metheny Group, Pat Metheny remains Pat Metheny. Highly recommended.