Jazz CD Reviews
Pat Metheny – Orchestrion – Nonesuch
Published on June 16, 2010
Pat Metheny – Orchestrion – Nonesuch 516668-2, 52:00 *****:
The double-page spread photo of the note booklet shows all of Methey’s various acoustic mechanical instruments as well as normal instruments such as drums, piano and guitars. It reminded me of the cover of Mike Oldfield’s original Tubular Bells LP, which similarly laid out all his various guitars and other instruments used in that watershed recording.
As a young man Metheny was fascinated by an old player piano and rolls which his grandfather had in his basement. For this new album he was interested in merging that now-dated musical technology with today’s technologies to “extend our reach.” He commissioned a number of musical inventors to create electro-acoustic instruments that he could employ along with his guitar to create a modern version of the sophisticated player pianos that featured added violin, marimba, percussion and other sounds and were dubbed an orchestrion. Orchestrionic instruments – using solenoids and pneumatics – were custom-built by a group know as LEMUR, standing for League of Electronic Musical Urban Robots. Yamaha’s Disklaviers were also used. The list of different sounds added to Metheny’s electric guitar include: pianos, marimba, vbies, orchestra bells, basses, guitarbots, percussion, cymbals, drums, blown bottles, keyboard and other acoustic mechanical instruments. I was reminded of the wild Rube Goldbergish musical environments created by the German artist Trimpin, who sometimes has them play a short loop of sound and other times programs them to play works of Nancarrow, Cage, Antheil, and even Liberace.
I was also reminded of a couple different piano concerto releases I’ve received wherein the pianist recorded his solo part on a grand piano, but synthesized the entire orchestra. Even at the high level of sophistication of today’s musical electronics, if you listen closely you can easily discern the electronic origin of the orchestral accompaniment, just as you can hear the electronic origin of most sampled sounds. The sounds on Metheny’s album seldom sound artificially electronic, although there are some quite boing-y guitar sounds on some of the tracks. Mostly he achieves a small group sound, not that of a big orchestra. The opening, and longest track, for example, begins with his electric guitar soloing with some of that boing-y accompaniment. Then the piano comes in, and seems to slowly morph into vibes. All the sounds – percussion, piano, marimba, vibes, basses, are Metheny. But they are not digital samples – they are all acoustic mechanical instruments.
The track Entry Point is a quieter, more introspective if not sad track. Soul Search opens with a fine long-lined melodic theme on Metheny’s guitar. His accompaniment is piano, vibes and drums with some added percussion. Both the three-fold cardboard sleeve and the note booklet are filled with closeups of some of the instruments, which do remind me of Trimpin’s constuctions – which he makes almost entirely out of mechanical parts he finds at junk yards. Metheny has several DVDs out of some of his group’s live performances. Here’s one, and we also reviewed a Blu-ray of his back in 2007. What’s really needed is a Blu-ray video of this Orchestrion album, with a hi-res surround track. I’d like to see the various instruments in action – the still photos are nice but they don’t quite do it.
TrackList: Orchestrion, Entry Point, Expansion, Soul Search, Spirit of the Air.
- John Henry