If you didn’t know it already, Pat Metheny has recently released an album called ‘Orchestrion’ on Nonesuch, which is his first truly solo effort since the ‘One Quiet Night’ acoustic guitar album of a few years back. And yet, if you play the album, it sounds a bit like a Pat Metheny Group CD…there are pianos and percussion and bass,,,,but the reality is that the Orchestrion project allows Metheny to play these pieces solo live, surrounded by a workshop full of remotely played marimbas,orchestra bells and many other instruments.
Orchestrions were essentially a 19th-century extension of the ‘Player Piano’ that used paper rolls to play a pre-defined set of tunes – even Beethoven wrote a piece celebrating Wellington’s victory at Waterloo for an early orchestrion. The technology was similar to that deployed not only by player pianos but also by the elaborate Dutch street organs that can still be seen in Holland and even further afield.
Metheny’s fascination with orchestrions derives from a player piano owned by his grandfather. His modern orchestrion has been purpose-built and incorporates a whole range of plucked and beaten instruments including drums, cymbals, basses, bells, vibraphones, glockenspiels etc. Metheny controls all of these through a system of solenoids and is able to do this on stage. In this digital age, when just about any sound can be produced using a laptop and the right software, the construction of this wilfully backward-looking ‘device’ might be seen as the work of a ‘Luddite’ like Keith Jarrett, who has openly rejected electric instruments, yet Metheny has always been quick to embrace the latest technological advances. His ‘Orchestrion’ project is clearly a labour of love and he has no doubt had a ball (and spent a lot of cash) working with the army of technicians who put all this together. My grasp of the technology involved is extremely limited, so I can only focus on the music……
Pat Metheny shows what you can do with a Meccano set and Bert Weedon’s ‘Play in a Day’
And the music is pretty good, though, as with most of what Metheny has released over the last few years, it’s not as vital or as thrilling as the music he was making in the late 1980’s. It’s difficult to convey just how much Pat Metheny’s music has meant to me over the years. I had a 20 plus-year love affair with his (and his collaborator Lyle Mays’) music, beginning with 1976’s ‘Watercolours’ album and tailing off in the late ’90’s following the ‘Imaginary Day’ album & tour. Quite simply, he was my main man and albums like ‘Pat Metheny Group’ (1977) and ‘Still Life Talking’ (1987) are still up there in my personal pantheon of Desert Island Discs. Gigs like Copenhagen’s ‘Montmartre’ in the summer of 1978 and the Hammersmith Odeon in the summer of 1987 (both with the Pat Metheny Group) are also right up there with the best I’ve ever been lucky enough to attend.
Not sure what happened after that, but the Pat Metheny Group albums that ensued in the ’00’s are pretty forgettable with most of his recent better work coming alongside Brad Mehldau in their collaborative quartet. Whether his various solo projects are just a way of taking stock whilst he puts a new version of the PMG together is questionable. In the meantime, he’s taking the Orchestrion show on the road – no doubt with a ‘John Bull ‘ Puncture Repair Kit and a Swiss Army penknife…..