The Orchestrion Project
Pat Metheny’s setup for his Orchestrion tour looked like a cross between a ransacked orchestra pit and an elaborate stage show from the excessive ’70s. For those late to the game, the Orchestrion is based on the elaborate, century-old contraptions of the same name that functioned like player pianos, reading music on a roll of paper that triggered different instruments. Metheny worked with a modernized version of it on his 2010 Orchestrion album, a five-part suite that combined his guitar with an array of pianos, marimba, blown bottles, guitarbots and “custom-fabricated acoustic mechanical instruments.”
The Orchestrion Project is the soundtrack to a film made in the vacant Brooklyn church where Metheny rehearsed with his machines. He recorded it following the tour in support of the original album, interspersing the entire suite with versions of a few Metheny standards, a brief Ornette Coleman tune and two improvisations. The latter two tracks are especially significant, as they prove this music does not have to sound mechanical, but can be quite lively and expressive.
Having said that, the five sections of the suite stick closely to the arrangements on the 2010 album, aside from some extra percussive accents here and there. They do, however, sound a little more open, perhaps due to the acoustics of the church, which make the rousing final section of the 16-minute “Orchestrion” more vital and dreamlike. The gentle “Soul Search” breathes a little more, too. Like other tracks, it moves along guided more by cymbals than drums but doesn’t sound spare. The first of the improvisations opens the whole set with a bluesy groove over a tambourine rhythm. Spare as it sounds, it presents a different side of the guitarist and a preamble for what’s to come.
“Improvisation 2” features loops of guitar tracks that continually change shape, utilizing stereo panning and backwards effects. The medley of “80/81-Broadway Blues” finds the percussion following the guitar’s melody and splattering accents. It feels like a live, precise drummer and inspires Metheny to get noisy on the fretboard. Conversely, “Stranger in Town” evokes ’80s new wave with a beat that could have come from a drum machine of that era.
Metheny originally intended to have the entire suite on one of the album’s two discs, but in a different order than on the previous release. Through a fate-changing accident explained in the liner notes, it became sequenced alphabetically, which actually makes the whole program more compelling. While it’s tempting to listen to the album to pick apart various pieces of the Orchestrion, the music doesn’t rely on novelty or gimmick to make an impression. The melodies stand on their own as strong works.