Pat Metheny Welcomes Your Jazz Robot Overlords


Who would have figured Pat Metheny for a steampunk? For his latest solo project, Orchestrion (Nonesuch), the intrepid guitarist has assembled a group of instruments—vibraphones lent by his pal, Gary Burton, drums courtesy of Jack DeJohnette, guitarbots created by the League of Electronic Musical Urban Robots (LEMUR), blown bottles, and “other custom-fabricated acoustic mechanical instruments”—and set them in sound and motion after having painstakingly composed their parts via guitar-MIDI interface.

The result, as demonstrated for a pack of journalists in Legacy Studios a few months ago, is vaguely uncanny yet surprisingly bright, thanks to the composer’s breezy melodies and self-characterized “nebulous” harmonic movement. “Most of what you’re hearing is either vacuum cleaners or garage-door openers,” Metheny explained to us—although a fairly sophisticated application of electromagnetic solenoids and pneumatics helped as well. Metheny added guitar after the fact, as he will on the road during an 81-city tour, improvising all alone alongside the carousel-esque contraption with the aid of Ableton software.

Orchestrion cranks up promisingly with a spry and glorious 15-minute eponymous composition that unmistakably evokes Frank Zappa’s 1986 Synclavier album Jazz From Hell. But where Zappa eschewed fallible flesh and blood for the digital sublime, Metheny goes it sample-free. The orchestrion is all funky mechanics, like a wind-up music box teeming with unexpected timbres. When Metheny finally solos, more than seven minutes in, the mechanized din seems to yield to his sensitive harmonic prodding, and vice versa. With tightly tethered precision, “Orchestrion” suggests a band trying to sound like a machine rather than vice versa, and ends with a heavenly chorus of constellated ecstasy.

The world’s first such experiment was a large organ invented by Abbé Georg Joseph Vogler, who toured Europe with it in 1789. A contemporary described the keyboard as “a beautiful and grand instrument said to possess the combined power of an orchestra.” The term “orchestrion” eventually fit any instrument played by pinned barrels (such as a music box), perforated cards, or paper rolls. In E. T. A. Hoffmann’s fascinating 1814 story “Automata,” the result is associated with the supernatural: “[A]ll mechanical music seems monstrous and abominable to me,” complains one character. But the story concludes with the two main characters imagining new, improved instruments capable of evoking a music “buried in nature as a profound mystery, comprehensible only by the inner, higher sense, uttered by instruments . . . in obedience to a mighty spell.”

Metheny’s “Orchestrionics” don’t quite fulfill this Romantic ideal; it’s simply a way to explore the limits of solo performance in a new context. Orchestrion tracks “Entry Point” and “Soul Search” are each long, pretty, thoroughly Metheny-esque ballads that could be played by any competent combo. And just when the stiffness of the drums begins to get on your nerves, Metheny modulates to a higher key, raises the volume, and throws the muscle and sinew of his graceful soloing up against the creation’s limitations.

Metheny has cut controversially challenging albums in the past, including The Sign of 4 and Zero Tolerance for Silence. Orchestrion is a breeze by comparison. His truly radical move, apparent long before final track “Spirit of the Air” descends from its billowing heights to a fittingly creaky conclusion, is to abandon jazz’s defining m.o., interactive improvisation, without the benefit of aspirational symphonics. But neither does this record resemble the “impossible,” “post-performer” music Conlon Nancarrow programmed on his piano rolls. Metheny is a thoroughly human musician, and his approach is all about sliding capos, thumping mallets, and pumping tubes—a sonic dildonics, as it were. And Pat Metheny is certainly no newb when it comes to delivering reliably pleasurable—not to mention well-lubricated—automata for the people.

Pat Metheny performs at Town Hall May 21 and 22

Archive Highlights