The jazz guitarist’s new instrument might look funny—but it’s no joke

No other jazz guitarist of the past four decades has done as much as Pat Metheny to broaden the definition of the instrument and expand its possibilities. Metheny reached out to listeners outside of the jazz mainstream with early releases like 1975’s Bright Size Life and 1980’s As Falls Wichita, So Falls Wichita Falls, and he’s maintained a huge audience ever since. Along the way he’s racked up three gold records and literally hundreds of awards, including 17 Grammys in 10 different categories.

But despite his enormous worldwide popularity, Metheny has been anything but cautious in his career. In addition to his work with the ever-reliable Pat Metheny Group, he has recorded and performed in numerous configurations ranging from solo to quartet and beyond. Metheny’s collaborations have crossed all over the musical map, from jazz legends Herbie Hancock, Ornette Coleman and Gary Burton to pop icons Joni Mitchell, David Bowie and Brazilian vocalist Milton Nascimento.

With his newest release, Orchestrion, Metheny heads in yet another new directiotn. Although technically a solo album, Orchestrion employs a complex technology based on ideas that originated with the player piano more than a century ago to allow Metheny to operate as a one-man band in real time. He triggers the keyboard, drum and percussion parts all from his guitar, while of course also overlaying his distinctive guitar licks. “What I’m doing here is using solenoid technology,” he explains, “which is basically electromagnets, where I can control dynamics. I have worked hard on that aspect, to make sure that things are always rising and falling and breathing.”

It may sound like a novelty on paper, but in practice it’s anything but—this is some of Metheny’s most compositionally detailed work to date. Speaking from Brooklyn, where he’s been busily working out just how to adapt this new music to a concert setting, Pat Metheny discussed his latest work and other aspects of his lengthy, legendary career.

How does the technology you’re using to create Orchestrion differ from conventional synthesizer or MIDI technology?

It’s actual instruments in the actual room actually doing stuff. We’re not talking about samples. We’re not talking about synthesizers. We’re talking about dozens and dozens of moving parts that are hitting, beating, plucking, smacking, shaking and doing everything else. As much as I’ve been involved in electricity, I have to say I’ve never completely loved the sound of electric stuff. Electric guitar is one instrument going into one speaker, and that’s fine. When you start mixing sound in a couple of speakers, it’s still electric sound in a speaker. As great as synths have become, which is pretty great, it’s still stuff coming out of speakers. With this, you walk in the room and it’s alive. It’s like the difference between processed food and organic. Air is moving, things are mixing in the air, and it’s never predictable. Every time a stick hits a cymbal it’s a little bit different. Almost everyone’s first reaction when they see this is to start laughing because it is kind of funny. But the music is really hardcore. Among the 30-odd records I’ve done, this is probably the most densely compositional of them all. The fun part of it for me was that this challenge—because it has been this incredible self-imposed challenge—caused me to get to a level of compositional detail. I had to function above and beyond normal, musically, because it is such a weird project.

Did you compose with the technology in mind or did you take compositions you already had and apply them to the technology?

It was only when the instruments started coming in—I commissioned five inventors to build these instruments for me—that I could really figure out what they were good at, what they could and couldn’t do. I had written a bunch of music before that, but I had to throw it all out; none of it worked. So I composed for this, quote-unquote band, as I became familiar with it and figured out its strengths. I had to make a choice at a certain point: What kind of record am I going

to make? I chose to make a very densely compositional record that has many references to my general world: harmony, melody, rhythm, etc. I don’t think anybody from note one is going to make any mistake about whose record this is.

With this music you are responding to yourself, rather than to other musicians. How difficult is it to be the soloist and the band simultaneously?

Oddly, this is probably the most personal record I’ve ever done. It’s strange because it is everything filtered through my consciousness, especially melodically. I spent a lot of time talking to drummers and thinking about drums, and I used to play a lot of bass gigs and I usually write everything on the keyboard anyway. So those worlds are very familiar to me. I also feel it’s important to say that this is not a replacement for anything. I’ve been lucky to play with the greatest musicians in the world, and will continue to.

Why do you think people who don’t normally listen to much jazz consider you their favorite guitarist?

I have no idea. I think some of it is that I’ve been out there for nearly 40 years playing more gigs than just about anybody you could name. And there was that period of 10 or 15 years from the time I started my band through the early ’90s that we had a level of success that was out of jazz proportion. We were selling hundreds of thousands of records, millions of records. Once jazz became too PBS and rock guys no longer looked to jazz for inspiration, things changed. That’s a sad commentary on what the revisionist, conservative movement in jazz has brought. I think the best part of jazz is where jazz guys have been revolutionaries. There’s never been a successful conservative element in jazz. By that I mean musically—there’s never been a time when jazz guys have looked backward to sound their message.

You made some derogatory comments about Kenny G several years ago that gained media attention. How do you feel about that now?

It’s funny, that was one of the first viral things on the internet. I honestly never considered at the time that anyone other than six people on my little website and my brother [trumpeter Mike Metheny] would ever see it—it was just a goof between him and me at first. On the other hand, as infamous as it is, it’s a pretty clear argument that I think has its place and says some things that are basically true, which is that you should not overdub yourself on dead people’s records and call it your own record [as Kenny G did in 1999 with a Louis Armstrong recording]. I argued that that’s probably not a good thing. I would still make that same argument, although I would pick my words a little bit differently. On the other hand, if I was going to have an infamous cause, it wouldn’t be that.

What would it be?

Jazz critics, Wynton Marsalis, the usual. (laughs)

A then-unknown Jaco Pastorius was on your first album. What are your recollections of him?

Jaco was one of the best friends I ever had. I know he’s this legendary figure, but to me he was a guy I met when I was 17 and he was 19. For two or three years, before anyone knew either one of us, we were working on stuff together and doing things and talking a lot. We were able to compare notes with each other all along the way, in a way that neither one of us could with anybody else. Then there was a point where Jaco became an unrecognizable person. He was the only person I knew early on who actually had absolutely no connection to drugs or alcohol, which is the way I’ve always been—but there was a point where there was a fork in the road where we took different paths. It literally, chemically, changed him to a different person. So that was always hard for me. He was gone to me, in a way, for years before he was actually gone. [Pastorius died in 1987 at age 35.]

Do you ever listen to your old records and say, I wish I could go back and teach this young kid Pat Metheny some of the things I’ve learned since?

That guy would be the one telling me stuff.

I was a million times more sure of everything then than I am now, which is something that comes with being 20. But part of what made so much happen in those early days is that I was so sure about so many things. Now I look back and I think it’s amazing that I got all those things through, because they weren’t that completely thought out. But on the other hand, when I listen to Bright Size Life now, I can still play every one of those tunes and still go, “Yeah.”

By Jeff Tamarkin

Jan/Feb 2010 Issue of M Music & Musicians

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