Orchestrion is no doubt going to be tremendously popular with Pat Metheny's devoted fan base, and anyone else who takes the opportunity to see the man on his upcoming tour. As one of the guitarist/composer's grandest projects, it will attract more than a few of those casually acquainted with Metheny's fame, curiosity piqued by the unusual concept behind the recording; the CD is enclosed in a triple-fold digipak with an array of color photos, no doubt intended to startle.
No question the Missouri-born Metheny posed himself a challenge in bringing the Orchestrion--capable of replicating an array of acoustic and electric instruments including piano, marimba and vibraphone--into the digital domain. Add to that extending his inspiration to composing new material expressly designed for and arising from the use of the Orchestrion, and the goals are laudable in and of themselves.
Yet the end result is less than the sum of its author's multi-faceted ambitions, because its tangible virtues are offset by a certain mechanical feel, the bane of projects where a musician opts to do it all himself. The ineffable air of mystery and elusive human touch that suffuse One Quiet Night (Warner Bros., 2003) are but fleeting, during the course of this fifty-plus minutes.
Orchestrion's greatest pleasures--and there are, to be fair, more than a few, lie in how this recording recalls the best melodic compositions of Metheny's three decades-plus oeuvre. Particularly notable, especially during “Entry Point,” is his truly poignant guitar playing; as the sole conventional instrument in play on Orchestrion and, the literal trigger of the device, that instrument itself lends personality to this affair, but Metheny can only project himself so far as the ghost in the machine.
The melodious guitar as on “Soul Search,” for instance, is never merely pretty, but sweet sounding in detail. Layers of harmony not only entice the ear but elicit close listening: Metheny plays in such a way as to make statements, not merely in sentences but in paragraphs, all with their own internal rhythms and melody lines. What further elevates the pleasure of hearing Orchestrion is the full presence in the recording quality: the deep resonance preserved by engineer Joe Ferla almost adds enough impact to the recording, compensating for the lack of human touch that makes “Expansion” sound too much like a demo for Pat Metheny Group.
Orchestrion, then, suffers less in conception than execution. The title device, too, becomes only a backdrop (and, perhaps even to some ears, a mere gimmick) for otherwise faultless composition and musicianship from the author. No doubt the prep work, recording and live performance allows Pat Metheny to extend his reach of technology as a means to keeping his recording, composing and playing fresh. In that respect Orchestrion is a smart move--even if, on its own terms, it's a bit too clever for its own good.
Track Listing: Orchestrion; Entry Point; Expansion; Soul Search; Spirit of the Air.
Personnel: Pat Metheny: guitar and orchestrionics (pianos, marimba, vibraphone, orchestra bells, basses, guitarbots, percussion, cymbals and drums, blown bottles, and other custom-fabricated acoustic mechanical instruments, keyboard).
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