Pat Metheny visited the posh Music Center at Strathmore in Bethesda, Md., on Wednesday night, playing music from his wildly ambitious robot-band album, Orchestrion. But for a few troubling moments, he seemed to be pulling from Zero Tolerance for Silence, his notorious noise experiment from 1994. It happened as the 55-year-old guitarist transitioned from a familiar sort of solo performance to a once-in-a-lifetime exhibition.
Early on, Metheny built steadily toward the Orchestrion spectacle; a short solo acoustic set began with single-note lines and ended with Metheny performing on his 42-string Pikasso instrument. In between were the sort of memorable melodies, determined strumming and pensive, folkish cadences that make his music so identifiable, heard here in arrangements of songs like “Make Peace” and “The Sound of Water,” both from Metheny’s collaborations with Brad Mehldau. Surrounding the guitarist were objects of foreshadowing: cloth-covered monoliths in back of him, and enormous wooden crates pushed toward the corners of the stage.
The anticipation heightened when Metheny donned his Ibanez hollowbody guitar and began picking along to the metronomic, percussive clink of what sounded like finger cymbals. Then, a blare of white noise. He kept playing. Then another. “I have no idea what that was,” said Metheny. Some chuckles up front. Then the fuzz-grating and loud-kept coming, and the situation moved from hiccup to major issue. “We’re obviously having technical difficulties,” he said, and apologized, more than once. But there were jokes to cut the tension. “Do you know why this is happening?” he asked. “Because my main hero in life, Gary Burton, is here.” Some cheers, and shouts of “We love you, Pat.” Then more jokes. He remembered another problematic gig, and another fan who responded with “We love you, Pat”: “The more he kept saying it, the worse things got,” Metheny quipped.
But soon enough the crisis-a problem with the house sound system, Metheny revealed later-was averted, and the cloaks on those monoliths fell away. It was a toy-factory-in-motion sort of moment, to be sure, all that restless machinery, the sheer vastness of it on display. Behind Metheny was a drum kit, separated into individual components and suspended within metal frames, along with a set of congas and a variety of small percussion instruments. Behind him and to his left were an acoustic guitar and a bass guitar, set against a board around head high. And then there were the bookends: two Yamaha Disklavier pianos, a marimba and a vibraphone, two wooden cabinets with glass bottles that yielded tones reminiscent of a Mellotron’s flute sounds, and, the most curious gadgets in Metheny’s artillery, two GuitarBots. Their timbre was (and is, on the Orchestrion record) hard to pin down: something like a guitar synth or vintage “sawtooth” signal, strangely effective when traversing unison lines alongside Metheny’s guitar. (With their vertical orientation and bustling sense of movement, they also seemed the most human and comically “robotic” of the guitarist’s mechanical cohorts.)
So one angle of this show seemed purely visual. Homing in on the robots attached to each instrument-in sum, the “Orchestrionics”-it was fun to witness the solenoids and pneumatics in action: the hammering of the mallets on the marimba, the spontaneous twitching of a tambourine. But as that effect wore off-and it eventually did in this somewhat overlong 2 1/2-hour program-the focus came back to Metheny’s latest compositions. Some of this very complex, Pat Metheny Group-like music was stunning. The rubber really seemed to hit the road about a third of the way through with Orchestrion‘s title suite and its baroque yet supremely tuneful lines. But other moments pointed up how great jazz is dependent on a human touch: The odd, rigid swing section in “Soul Search” made this writer miss Antonio Sanchez dearly.
The whole enterprise raised questions, and Metheny owned up to that. The first question many people had, he said, was “When exactly did you lose your mind?” The second was “How does all that stuff work?” The guitarist never adequately answered the latter query, though he tried, in a few different ways. One way had to do with personal history: the story of discovering his grandfather’s player piano, and his subsequent lifelong fascination with 18th- and 19th-century orchestrions. Other explanations were more hands-on. In one improvised flight, he repeated the head to Ornette Coleman’s “Broad Way Blues” while layering on Orchestrionics. But because the other instruments mostly mirrored each note of the theme rythmically-the percussion doing an unwieldy impression of free-jazz drumming-the overall result was more cacophonous than interesting. Yet another question arose: How does Metheny make it sound good?
A later improv strove to answer that one. It involved a score of beautiful melodic figures being looped: arpeggiated chords on acoustic guitar; a series of dramatic, longish notes from the blown bottles. Toward the end, with one guitar slung around to rest on his back, Metheny improvised a solo on his MIDI guitar, which was positioned on a stand. It was an experiment but it constituted a high point. (If a live album should come from this, let’s hope some of these off-the-cuff exercises make the cut.)
But there was no real lucid explanation of the onstage magic, and encore numbers like the fleet “Stranger in Town” only exacerbated the sense of bewilderment. How much of the music was pre-programmed? Do certain parts of the fretboard control certain instruments? What was that console at center stage? What do the pedals do? Is this an unprecedented musical exploration, a vanity project, a major jazz event, or all of the above?