Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Comebacks: Pat Metheny's One Man Band

The following article was printed in the "View From Old Main" section in the March 17th issue of The Gadfly at Luther College.

We live in a truly advanced age. Our lives are all driven by constantly surging technological advances that are continually progressing. Their impact has never felt more present than when listening to much of our current musical trends. Auto-tuners have replaced human voices, beat creating software has all but replaced the drummer, and digital samples have replaced the need to be creative when writing songs. Like it or not, this is the artistic world that most of us are living in. What this has caused is a movement crying out for the old-fashioned, even for a regression, when attempting to reclaim the musical art form from the automated future that it has fallen into (see Kitty, Daisy & Lewis, Daptone Gold, even the raw sound of Fleet Foxes, Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros and Bon Iver).

Nonchalantly straddling this border is a jazz guitarist named Pat Metheny. Hailing originally from Lee’s Summit, Missouri, Metheny has been one of the most innovative and important musical pioneers of the last 30 years. Widely known as jazz’s greatest modern guitarist, Metheny’s signature tone and style has characterized his work since his outbreak album, Bright Size Life, back in 1976. Since then, his band mates have represented the best musicians known to the fusion and post-fusion jazz worlds, including Jaco Pastorious and Bob Moses (each of whom were featured on Bright Size Life), Gary Burton, Charlie Haden, Ornette Coleman, Brad Mehldau, Antonio Sanchez, Christian McBride, Lyle Mays, Danny Gottlieb, and Chick Corea. Among others, these players have been part of the revolving door that is Pat’s complex musical life. So where do we go from here? The answer is simple: Orchestrion.

Metheny’s most recent album, Orchestrion (Nonesuch Records), features himself on guitar and Orchestrionics, which is a team of automated guitars, basses, pianos, and percussion, all of which are controlled either through his guitar, or by using a series of foot pedals (there is a fantastic video of the “band” on Officially inspired by his grandfather’s century old player piano, Metheny’s “reinvention of the one-man band” has brought an entirely new concept to the solo album. In a video promoting the album on his website, Metheny stares wide-eyed at his room full of mechanized instruments and marvels at how wonderful it is that every single sound on the album has been “something I created.” Metheny, who has achieved fame as a solo artist and as a collaborator, has now egotistically found a way toassume both roles simultaneously.

Orchestrion was created by Metheny, Mark Herbert, Eric Singer, and the League of Electronic Musical Urban Robots (LEMUR) after new solenoid technology was developed allowing Pat Metheny to “play [his] guitar with his feet.” Cool right? Naturally, when you’ve reached this point, the next step is to tour around the world with a band of robots that obey your every command. The technology used on the album, which is a mix of solenoids and pneumatic switches that combines a mix of prerecorded loops and simultaneous doubling of Metheny’s guitar riffs that create a color that is equivalent to those provided by his previous bands. The color is a sweeping, sprawling whirlwind of sound that can only be provided by six 12-string guitars being played with robotic arms and transplanted piano hammers, unless, of course, you used real people.

No matter how incredible a feat this album is, all of those fans with a critical ear will notice that it lacks a very important element. While embodying a certain progressive, fusion sound that can drive many Django purists to retreat to their boxes of old 35’s, Pat Metheny has been able to do something that many other artists in his genre have been unable to accomplish. Up until this point, Metheny has done nothing to jazz but introduce new colors (guitar effects, stylistic elements) and new feels (lots of mixed meter compositions that add to the weightless driving sound he is known for). Unlike his archenemy Kenny G, he has managed to play an un-bastardized form of jazz that has remained both pedagogically intelligent, yet progressively approachable to both jazz fans and non-jazz fans alike. Like several of his predecessors, for example Louis Armstrong, Metheny’s music is incredibly appealing to the lay listener, all the while allowing you space to dive into the immense world of jazz theory and trace an artist’s stylistic influences back to their roots. This results in an impact that is nothing less than mind blowing and often becomes the stuff of legend

With this in mind, it is essential to point out that, like all talented artists, athletes and celebrities, it is often those people surrounding them that make them great. Louis Armstrong was a great trumpeter, but his Hot 5’s and Hot 7’s - the two groups that helped him to record his first album – made him better. Pat Metheny is great, but playing without the Lyle Mays’, or Antonio Sanchez’s of the world, his music loses the powerful soul that it once possessed.

It is no surprise that with Orchestrion, however technologically innovative it may be, has lost the emotional, human connection that former Metheny albums have been triumphed for. The colors are brilliant, but they somehow sound shallow and flat. The drumming is technically perfect, but lacks the drive and the fortitude of a living, breathing drummer. The guitars are perfect in time, rhythm and pitch, but they lack the minor, virtually un-noticeable inconsistencies that somehow make good albumsgreat. So why do it? Metheny draws inspiration from Ray Kurzweil, “one of the most visionary thinkers in the world” who also often works in the musical side of artificial intelligence. When asked this question, “why do you do this,” Kurzweil responded, to “extend our reach.” Metheny goes on to point out that “good notes, once revealed, seem to carry their own intrinsic value with them forward, however they came to be.” Simply put, Metheny doesn’t care where the music comes from. If it’s good, it’s good, thus expressing a surprisingly Midwestern attitude from the international superstar.

Pat Metheny’s Orchestion has successfully reinvented the player piano, and significantly added to the oeuvre of mechanical and robotic instruments, but it neglects one simple fact that we learned over a hundred years ago: player pianos never sound nearly as good as the real thing. When criticizing certain modern movements of jazz (Kenny G), Metheny is quoted saying, “just like in rock and roll, we have to remember that 95% of jazz music is really bad.” Unfortunately for him, this album leans toward the majority category simply due to its lack of the human expressive element. This is a band of machines, and it plays like one.

Pat Metheny is currently with his Orchestrionics touring throughout Europe. The group will perform live at the Fitzgerald Theatre in St. Paul on May 9th.

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