Few guitarists, in jazz or otherwise, command the respect and attention of the audience like Pat Metheny does. His debut in 1974 featured none other than the celebrated bassist Jaco Pastorius. His recordings with the Pat Metheny Group range from stately to outrageous, defying genre and redefining the role of the jazz-based guitarist in modern music.
Nothing prior to his latest release could have prepared the concert-goer for what they will find—the “Orchestrion” is an automated orchestra controlled by one; in this case, Metheny, his guitar and some nifty technology, providing a full music experience with the aesthetic of a Steampunk art project. (I) recently spoke to Metheny about, among other things: the recent archival acetate recordings of classic radio jazz performances from the 1930s, captured by engineer Bill Savory, what jazz or any other genre means to the 21st century, and perhaps most importantly, what the heck is an Orchestrion anyway?
I’ve been trying to figure out how to explain the Orchestrion, and failing miserably at it. What I’ve got, up to this point, is that it is somewhere between a player piano (as real instruments are triggered, versus solely artificial MIDI (musical instrument digital interface, where an instrument is connected to a computer with a catalog of sounds) synth sounds being played to approximate real sounds with the flexibility of MIDI because you have the ability to actually play versus playing along to a pre-set pattern (i/e player piano rolls). Am I even remotely close?
You are in the ballpark. To give a really complete technical explanation would take about two hours. While your basic sense of it is largely correct, the truth is that I can control it in many different ways; there is no one explanation that says it all. But the “real instruments being hit, struck, plucked and banged on, no synths” description is an important distinction to make.
You’re the only live performer on the stage, playing your guitar and the Guitar-Bot setup, and yet the Orchestrion is a monster unit all around you. What is the size of the crew in charge of moving this from town to town?
It is not unlike what I always have. A few key tech people that have been with me for years, and for this tour one of the interns that built a lot of the instruments.
You’ve never been one to shy away from a challenge, so what have you taken away from this experience so far?
This is such a unique project in every way that I can’t really compare it to anything else. It is kind of 360-degree experience for me in that I am responsible for every aspect of every note of it all, whether improvised or written. That is often largely true by degrees in other situations as well where I am the leader, but because I am functioning as a kind of mulit-instrumentalist in this environment, it challenges me on many other levels. The total concept of this was kind of “improvised,” so that fits in there too. It is hard to break it all apart.
What do you hope the audience gets from this performance?
People are going totally crazy. Just about every concert around the world has been sold out. I have never gotten a reaction like this for anything. This is something totally unique. There has never really been a concert like this and I think audiences are really enjoying it. I often say it is a great “date night” concert—you will have a lot to talk about afterward! It causes people to ask a lot of interesting questions about a lot of different things.
What was the writing process for this album, did form follow function, or did you already have a pre-conceived notion of the music you would make, and then set to having the Orchestrion fulfill that?
The idea has been knocking around in my brain for about 30 years. Every year I would look around and say, “Wow, no one has done it yet.” It is just something that I have been fascinated with since I was a kid.
There was a period when the instruments started finally coming in where I had to find out what they were good at. And like anything else, you want to write for the strengths of any given situation. I had written a bunch of music before the instruments came thinking that it would sound great. While it wasn’t terrible, what emerged when I really had the instruments in hand was something different, and I would say better.
No, not at all. This has been an incredibly exciting and enriching experience on all levels.
While you’re most associated with jazz, you’ve never failed to jump across musical boundaries (and many readers might be familiar with your collaboration with David Bowie, “This Is Not America,” from the soundtrack of The Falcon and the Snowman). Do genres matter any more or do they hinder the artist?
To me, music is one big thing. We all use the same 12 basic pitches for the most part. The discussions about style are usually more about the politics and the culture that surround it than the actual musical reality.
Your most controversial recording was Zero Tolerance For Silence, built up around degrees of guitar feedback. While critics lambasted the album when it came out, now there’s a whole subsection of heavy metal music centered around feedback and drone (Fear Falls Burning, Boris, Sunn 0))) – Do you feel vindicated in some way?
One detail; I don’t think there is one second of feedback on that record.
Not to be snotty about it, but I don’t really care much about what any critic says about anything one way or the other. At best, it is superfluous to the actual thing.
What is jazz these days, and what is your assessment of its state?
I worry, but then every now and then a musician comes along like Brad Mehldau and I kind of breathe a sigh of relief. I think the music is in pretty good shape. The way it intersects with the culture at this moment is something to take minor note of but in the long term is again somewhat irrelevant to the actual reality of music.
This is strictly a swing-jazz question, so I’m not sure how much bearing it has on our conversation other than my own curiosity … What’s your take on the recent unearthing of the Bill Savory acetate transcriptions?
I feel for the musicians who are represented on there who will not have a voice in whether they would want their performances to be released or not. Nor will they or their heirs be compensated properly in this era where the minute something is released it is mostly regarded as being free. Out of respect for the participants and their legacy, I would suggest keeping it unreleased but available to be heard at a particular site.
Thanks once again to Pat Metheny, as well as Melissa Cusick from Nonesuch Records for facilitating our interview.