NEW YORK — For Pat Metheny, music is nothing without a story. It’s a lesson he picked up 40 years ago playing with Kansas City drummer Tommy Ruskin, when the 15-year-old guitarist was beginning his passionate drive to make music a way of a life.
Everything’s a story. And everything in Metheny’s world seems to be connected.
There’s the interconnected path that leads from a childhood memory to the long electric arc of his musical career to the launch last week of the most astounding jazz band he has ever assembled.
Then there’s the story of the friend of a friend who got him a deal to spend a few months rehearsing in this vacant Byzantine Catholic church in Brooklyn.
Metheny, with guitar strapped on, stands on his carpeted practice stage strewn with wires and surrounded by drum kits, cymbals, marimba, vibraphone, little percussion pieces, piano, a half-dozen other guitars, and two mysterious wooden cabinets lined with bottles.
And there’s not another musician in sight.
Yet, Metheny launches into a new tune and the familiar liquid ring of his Ibanez guitar fills the sanctuary air. Then, as his fingers move up and down the neck, the drumsticks start riding the cymbals and drumheads, which are arrayed on tall racks behind him.
Soon the vibes are playing, the marimba, a bass guitar, a gang of vertical stringed machines called a robot guitar, all controlled by Metheny, all responding to electric signals he’s sending out from his Ibanez.
Yes, Metheny, the fluffy-haired musician who has proven that a near-high school dropout can become one of the most creative performers and composers of his time, has now blazed another trail.
He has invented what has to be, at least for the moment, the ultimate one-man band.
Sure, any lounge lizard worth his paycheck can push a few buttons on a keyboard and get the sound of a rhythm section and strings swaying to a languid bossa nova.
But there’s never been anything quite like this, and Metheny has never done anything as complicated and as outrageously fun.
With a new record just out and a tour starting in France, you might think that Metheny, the veteran, has already done it all.
“Every single person,” he says during a rehearsal break, “including my wife, thought I’d lost my mind. This one takes the cake.”
The story of Pat Metheny’s “Orchestrion” record and tour begins with a childhood summer memory. Pat, about 8, and his older brother Mike, both trumpeters like their father, discover the wonders of a player piano in their grandfather’s basement in Wisconsin. Load in a roll of paper and the mechanical piano plays a tune.
Fast forward a few years and Metheny’s playing in the marching band in high school at Lee’s Summit, Mo., and in the evenings, when he should be doing homework, he’s taking his newfound interest in the guitar to another level. At 14, 15, 16, Metheny talks and plays his way onto bandstands around Kansas City, getting a jazz education from Herman Walder, from Tommy Ruskin, from trumpeter Gary Sivils, from pianist Paul Smith, who hires him for a regular gig at a pizza parlor.
The first time Ruskin hears him, about 1970, Metheny seems a pretty well-formed guitarist, far more mature and accomplished than you’d expect from a 15-year-old.
Ruskin didn’t really sit him down and say, “Hey, kid you’ve got to tell a story,” but even then Metheny was musician enough to understand that there was something deep about the way Ruskin played the drums.
“He liked my solos,” Ruskin says. “He calls them, ‘telling a story.’ I try to tell a story rhythmically when I play rather just playing for speed or technique. I’m still working at that.”
Yet, Ruskin adds, “If he learned something from me, it was by osmosis.”
Metheny, a self-described “mercy graduate” of Lee’s Summit High School, soon catches the ear of a music school dean who recruits him to attend the University of Miami. One week into the program, Metheny befriends another young and brilliant musician, the bassist Jaco Pastorius. Metheny also comes to the embarrassing conclusion that he doesn’t belong in college.
He goes to the dean, says he feels inadequate and certainly not up to the intellectual demands. The dean, as Metheny’s story goes, notes how students had swarmed to the school’s new electric-guitar major and asks him if, instead of staying on as a student, he’d like to teach. “Can I keep my dorm room?” Metheny asks.
From there, vibraphonist Gary Burton, whom Metheny impressed at the Wichita Jazz Festival in 1973, gets 19-year-old Metheny onto the faculty of the Berklee School of Music in Boston, the real launch pad for Metheny’s rocketing career.
He teaches three terms in 1974-75 and by 1976, Metheny makes his recording debut as a leader for the ECM label, releasing the first of dozens of LPs and discs. (His most recent big project, “The Way Up,” was a nonstop 68-minute orchestral-type composition that, in concert, he played straight through, leading a seven-piece version of the Pat Metheny Group.)
As a musician, he’s not an acoustic purist. His records blast with electronic anthems as much as they explore avant-garde corners and soothing melodic tune-making. As early as 1978, he makes a solo record, “New Chautauqua,” by sandwiching tracks of himself playing different guitars in the studio, and by the next year he’s dabbling with electronic instruments including a digital synthesizer connected to his guitars called a Synclavier (SIN-clah-veer).
“Technology has been part and parcel of what I do every day,” he says.
But those things are just tools, he’d say, as he did in a 1985 interview with Downbeat magazine: “I always try to emphasize that if you don’t have anything to say musically, it doesn’t matter if you’ve got a state-of-the-art Synclavier or a crummy old spinet piano. You still have to come up with the goods.”
The memory of his grandfather’s player piano rolled around in Metheny’s mind over the years, and his own research led him to the Orchestrion, a generation of mechanical players on steroids that dates to the late 19th and early 20th century.
“With Orchestrion, the player piano expands out to other instruments,” Metheny says.
In short, it was an entertainment machine that allowed a performer to emulate a band, though, with today’s ear, a band that would sound rather crudely simplistic and oompah-heavy.
Because those instruments operated on foot-pumping pneumatics, the possibilities of nuance and dynamic range were limited.
As Metheny’s idea takes hold, he seeks the advice and partnership of instrument makers and experimentalists across the nation. A few years ago, someone gave him the breakthrough idea of using solenoids, or electrical switches, to control a variety of instruments.
“I wanted to play a guitar with my feet,” he says, “and that opened the door for me — solenoids.”
By 2008, Metheny thinks he had learned enough to proceed. The instrument makers began building an array of devices for him, eventually deploying a total of 400 solenoids to transfer Metheny’s directions to the mallets, drumsticks and picks that play along.
And those ranks of bottles in elegant wooden cabinets? They are tuned, much like a pipe organ, and respond to puffs of air, also on his command.
Concert listeners used to DJ-spun sound environments and computer controlled music will note here that Metheny uses no sampling, no looping, no-prerecorded sounds, not even a computer keyboard on stage. All of the music on the new album, and in the concerts to come, are real time and made essentially by acoustical instruments.
“It’s something that’s hard to explain. It’s not samples. It’s a big living, breathing thing.”
Some of the instruments, scheduled to arrive a year ago, show up two months late. That gives him barely six months to learn to play them. “I had to do a week of math just to get it all to groove,” he says. In the meantime he’s writing music for a September recording session, and he’s still in search of the story of the music, really trying to focus on what he’s trying to do and say.
In the end, the story becomes a kind of autobiography of a musician. The whole thing – the robo-guitars, the bells, the lightly brushed cymbals – adds up to a portrait of the musical mind of Pat Metheny.
“Every sound there is made by me,” he says, “and is fundamental to the way I hear things.”
By December, the day of this demonstration, the recording is done and now the task is memorizing the music to play in concert and continuing to master the instruments, to understand their capabilities and what they can and can’t do as he stands on stage alone and plays his guitar.
“Honestly, I didn’t know what was going to happen,” he says. “It took me to new and different places.”
The record, “Orchestrion,” is fully composed and controlled, with textures and tempos in five compositions that sound like no one but Metheny.
In concert, his challenge is that of a jazz musician: to create improvisations on those pieces on the spot.
And something else he has never done before:
“This,” he says, “is the first time I’ve ever toured solo.”
Metheny did not set out to find an alternative to paying a band. After this, he’ll continue with his group projects and trio recordings and every other aspect of his musical journey.
A little before 7 p.m., Metheny’s phone lights up. It’s his wife, Latifa. He’ll be home soon, he says, to visit with the kids — the couple had their third child in May — and, he tells her, he’ll get takeout dinner on the way.
His routine: drop the older kids at school, arrive in the Brooklyn church at 9, home for dinner, then back working with his production crew and rehearsing till late.
Making new music, balancing family life: That’s material for a whole other story.
// Notes from the Road
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