A most unusual "solo" record from the jazz guitarist, accompanied by an "orchestra" of percussion and stringed instruments being played mechanically like a player piano.
Pat Metheny has earned the chance to play in nearly every existing context that a jazz musician could imagine -- traditional quartets and trios, fusion bands, all-star groups, backing up Joni Mitchell, playing Ornette Coleman tunes, intimate duos, solo acoustic guitar, out-and-out noise rock. Metheny, in fact, has done all that and is now turning to previously nonexistent accompaniment.
Orchestrion features Metheny's fluid, nose-for-a-melody jazz guitar playing with a bubbling array of mallet and string instruments that are not being played by live musicians but by "solenoid switches and pneumatics", to quote the promotional materials. These instruments consist of pianos and "guitar-bots", marimbas and drums but also "cabinets of carefully tuned bottles". It was inspired by Metheny's memory of enjoying his grandparents' player piano, but it clearly operates as an extension of earlier solo sessions that asked, "How can I be an entire orchestra?"
How does this Orchestrion work? Your guess is as good as mine. "Pneumatics" and "solenoid switches" sound somehow cooler and less cold-blooded than "computers", but some kind of plan or algorithm must be controlling all these "guitar-bots". The sound of the record is not digital, however. The instruments themselves are acoustic, and the wild array of cymbal crashes and struck things make Orchestrion sound decidedly alive.
The quarter-hour title track positively ripples with rhythmic energy. There is an infectious chattering quality to these many little instruments, as if a thousand mice were all grooving along with Metheny, each one of them properly schooled in the Mixolydian mode. Unlike so many of the grand large-group settings that jazz musicians typically turn to, the Orchestrion is not given to schmaltz. It never drips with sentiment like a string section or reaches for the lofty like an array of brass. The percussion is more likely to percolate than to pound. So, you might say that this is a project that lends itself to a kind of tastefulness. It creates a shimmering, impressionistic canvas on which Metheny can noodle nicely.
"Entry Point" is a pulsing ballad that draws from the leader precisely the yearning melodicism he is best at. Like all the tunes, this was composed (or should we say "programmed") by Metheny, and it has a seductive Latin sway and a beautiful harmonic shape. As he builds his solo, you might find yourself thinking about the fact that every note beyond the guitar has been predetermined. In jazz, the notion that the accompaniment cannot change at all based on the play of the improvising soloist is close to sacrilege. Should it matter to a listener?
If we put these matters of technology aside -- if we pretend, perhaps, that this is just some band that Metheny put together, caught and frozen here for the first time on record -- then what is the judgment on this music?
Well, "Expansion" has a punchy melody that grooves nicely over a rhythm section that pushes forward in a very precise way. I'm no fan of the odd doubling of the melody on some kind of synthy-sounding instrument, but the guitar solo is clear as sky. The percussion under the solo seems darn alive, pushing and prodding, hitting the accents, making for some real excitement. But the "conga" solo after the return of the melody seems leaden and awkward, something no player of Metheny's caliber would take credit for. Hmmm.
How about "Soul Search", which begins as a muted ballad between guitar and piano? The entry of the "band" adds little until the mallet instruments join the arrangement, creating some counterpoint. But on this tune "Metheny's new band" is not happening -- on the ballad section it doesn't flesh out much feeling, and when the tune moves into a walking 4/4 for the solo, well, it just doesn't swing much. If the standard here is, say, a rhythm section of Christian McBride on bass and Antonio Sanchez on drums, then this band is just meh. If the standard is a band of pneumatics and solenoid switches, then....
"Spirit of the Air" is a multi-part composition that is better suited to the Orchestrion's talents. Driven by Reich-ian repetitions on the mallet instruments, this tune breaks into an interesting, more minimal accompaniment for the solo, with the precise clackity-clacking of the drums seeming like an effective tool for drama. The written section after the solo really soars, with yearning harmonies and textures that recall the Pat Metheny Group of recent years.
In the end, this is good music, even fine music -- composing and playing that carries at least the weight of Metheny's recent eponymous groups and other solo projects. And the technology that created it might reasonably be called astonishing. But aside from the wonderment that might be induced if you saw this setup create the music live in concert, perhaps it's best just to say that this is one of the good but not great Pat Metheny records, which ain't bad at all.
This guy has won 17 Grammys -- high praise or some kind of a curse, depending on how you view it—and so he gets to build a cool solenoid orchestra if he wants one. But my guess is that, next time out, Pat Metheny will be keen on remembering the brilliant machine that is a small jazz band. I have no idea if the human brain and the human fingers involve solenoids or pneumatics, but they sure can swing.