Friday, May 21, 2010

Metheny's starry homecoming

Two nights before concluding phase one of his Orchestrion tour, Pat Metheny stopped by Boston to provide a glimpse of his project to make ambitious, multi-layered music in which he is responsible for every note.

There’s Metheny and a few of his custom guitars and an Orpheum Theatre stage filled with four levels of instruments triggered either by pneumatics or electronic solenoids that are controlled by a MIDI system. Metheny keys it all with foot pedals, guitar knobs and a small electronic touchpad.

In a city where he has been revered as a guitar god since the early 1970s, the crowd was fascinated – and riveted to his playing and his explanations/demonstrations of how it works. Sort of a musical Mr. Wizard.

Metheny described the project as “my brain at 9 years old taken to the 21st century,” a reference how as a youngster he was fascinated at the mechanics involved when he crawled under his grandfather’s antique player piano to see how it worked. Today’s technology enabled him to develop the possibilities into a new reality.

Metheny opened his set with a half-hour of music from his songbook on solo guitar, including his 46-string Pikasso hybrid. Then he shifted to guitar plus one robotic drum, before the curtain rose on the entire Orchestrion.

He worked his way through the entire five-part suite that comprises his Orchestrion CD (Nonesuch). All of those works featured Metheny playing his distinctive guitar work on top of the MIDI-programmed tunes he had developed. Close your eyes, and it sounded like Metheny playing dozens of instruments at once. Beautiful, complex, deeply layered.

He had twinkling white lights added to each instrument, so we in the audience could visualize what had been triggered. It was a starry night – indoors.
To give the audience a sense of how it all works, he played three pieces that were improvised on the spot. He’d set a melody with one pedal, play a melody or counter melody on his MIDI-guitar, then assign it to one or more instruments (There were two Yamaha Disklaviers, countless percussion pieces, four guitarbots, two cabinets full of blown bottles that created B-3 like tones, marimbas and vibraphones in his arsenal.) Then he’d add more layers…. Then when he liked the backing, he soloed over it.

It was all Metheny - a blend of melodicism and intensity - and it was all good. He even took his older tune “Unity Village” and played multiple guitar layers – something he had to do by overdubbing when it was first recorded.

Metheny stretched this show to more than two hours. “There are more than a million reasons why it’s always special to be here,” he said of his Boston stop. “Primarily it is you people.”

Metheny is not going solo with this project all the time. In fact, he’s taking Pat Metheny Group back on the road in June. This was just a new chapter in his musical imagineering.

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