When I first met with Pat Metheny in preparation for this feature, it was the day before Thanksgiving, and he was ready for me. I entered the front parlor of his rehearsal space, we sat down, and within a minute or two he had opened a hardcover copy of The Golden Age of Automatic Musical Instruments, by Arthur A. Reblitz. I can’t remember the illustration he indicated -- this one, perhaps? -- but I do have his comments on file. “People were essentially doing this same kind of thing in that wacky period before people had recordings,” he said. “And I mean, this in particular [pointing] sort of parallels the specific kind of thing that I’m doing.” (Here he made eye contact.) “So it’s not like this is something I came up with out of the clear blue sky.”
Pat Metheny is not a crazy person. Far from it, in fact. Spend a couple of hours in his presence, as I did that afternoon and again in December, and this whole robot-orchestra idea begins to seem rational, if not exactly normal. At the time, word wasn’t really out about Orchestrion, though select folk -- like David Adler, now hard at work on his second Metheny cover for JazzTimes -- had seen a demo. The air of secrecy was thick, as Team Metheny counted down the days to its 16-week tour. I couldn’t help but think of a Bond villain in his lair, preparing to unleash his diabolical creation on the world.
Of course Orchestrion is no more diabolical than the average Pat Metheny release. It is, however, a good deal more disconcerting, precisely because of its “natural” qualities: organic sound, fluid dynamics, a deceptive sense of interaction. (It is the opposite of this.) There are also evocations of past Methenyscapes. Discussing the album in the A&L piece, I draw a thread between its closing track and parts of Still Life (Talking). I’m sure diehard Meth-heads will have more to say on that point. (Anyone care to comment along those lines?)
More important, perhaps, is the way Metheny approached this project compositionally: as the sort of long-form jazz epic that has so often cropped up in his career. There are structural signposts embedded all over the album. So for instance, the title track -- t’would be no stretch to call it an overture -- begins with a melodic cell that resurfaces, altered but intact, on a later ballad, “Soul Search.” It’s one way in which Orchestrion functions as a suite, but it’s also redolent of Metheny’s misprision of “Giant Steps,” which in his recasting (e.g., this version) becomes less a furrowed-brow étude than a twilit lullaby.
That jazz connection isn’t arbitrary. (Metheny doesn’t do arbitrary.) Nor is it purely a lark that the song titles on Orchestrion evoke some lost mid-to-late-‘60s Impulse! session. Consider: “Expansion,” “Entry Point,” “Spirit in the Air.” Maybe “Soul Search” reads more early-to-mid-‘60s Blue Note, but we’ll throw it in. Anyway, when I mentioned this to Metheny during my second Greenpoint visit, he chuckled. “Yeah, that’s true,” he said. So was this project, in spite of all the technicalities, really “about” some transcendent aim? I found his response pretty interesting:
I wouldn’t trust Metheny when he implies that the head-solo-solo-head convention in jazz prompts him to start counting the cracks in the ceiling. (He has worked brilliantly in that format, for one thing, and loves too much music that adheres to it.) But it’s surely worth noting that he sees Orchestrion as a means of expressing the same ideas -- about form, about feel, about harmony and color -- that have basically driven all of his work. At one point he compared the chamberlike aspects of the Pat Metheny Group to the blank-canvas possibilities of working with Ornette Coleman.
“Honestly I don’t see either one of those as being freer than the other,” he said. “They each have a different flavor, a different kind of response, a different range of responses are available. But I love the variability of the whole thing. If I was going to do nothing but playing trio, or nothing but playing with Ornette, or nothing but the Group, I would probably get a little restless. I see the whole thing as One Big Thing. Each aspect of playing sort of has the possibility of poking its heads out in different ways in different settings. I don’t really see this as anything more than another room on the house. A new bedroom.”
Or perhaps, as it were, a tool-strewn garage. (Geek alert: I am considering a future post about the more technical aspects of Orchestrion. I got a ton of insight from Metheny, and spoke at length with several of the inventors. I’m also presenting on the subject at this year’s EMP Pop Conference, which bears a scarily compatible theme.)We haven’t yet addressed public perception of the work. That’s partly because I suspect the album to be of secondary impact. (The real bellwether has just begun: I’m curious to track responses to the tour. Any reports? Videos? Post ‘em below.) For his part, Metheny affects an artist’s indifference. “This is not the first time I’ve been down the road of people kind of not getting it at first,” he said.
But he does care about what you think, to some extent. If you read the A&L piece, you may have noticed the part about the 1,800-word email. (The word count was actually 1,868, including an unrelated digression.) In the note, later followed by a PDF of the complex “Orchestrion” score -- I wish I could show you the mallet parts for, oh, pages 23 to 31 -- he struck the tone of someone defusing critique, and wary of being misunderstood. So I’ll close here with a portion of that note: the improvising robot bandleader, in his own words.
I have no plan on stopping doing the things I have always done, nor do I see this as a replacement or substitute for anything else. It is simply a new medium for me.
To me, as a very rough analogy among many, it would be like someone after seeing The Fantastic Mr. Fox or Coraline or even Avatar or something saying, “Well, why didn’t they just film real people on a stage somewhere and leave it at that?”
Obviously, it is a different result with a different flavor and allows wildly different stories to be told. And yes, with a very different editorial slant from the creative aspect -- meaning that with different materials one might get to things that one would not have gotten to under other circumstances. [...]
There is a kind of jazz-centric take that seems to wed the jazz mythology to a kind of distant black-and-white past where one is more likely to invoke images of Citizen Kane than the kinds of films I referenced before -- or even unimaginable new ones in the future. I have always sort of rejected that line of thinking all along the way, obviously.
My view is that we can’t go back, even if we want to. I guess that cuts to the heart of something for me that has a central construct from very early on.
To me, the whole idea of imitating previous successes in jazz, invoking the shield of “tradition” and calling it a day just doesn’t work and never has. My take on it is and always has been, for better or worse, jazz is a one-time deal. Each individual brings his or her song to the table, and when that person is gone, it is gone.
And as ironic as this may be coming from me on the heels of this particular project, the issue of authenticity itself is central to what has made each figure along the way that has really affected me. There is one of them, and they invented a way of being (or sometimes many ways) that is unique and has the authority that original invention invokes -- and that invention is almost always something that comes directly out of the experiences on the ground of the realities and conditions of their day to day life -- in and of the times they are actually living in.