Let’s put aside for now the philosophical questions about a player/composer’s need for control, and whether there’s any qualitative difference between the music said player/composer writes for himself and what he writes for himself with other people, or for himself playing a myriad of instruments simultaneously. Pat Metheny rolled into the Orpheum Thursday night with his Orchestrion, an assemblage of instruments all under his control. And if the results weren’t exactly awesome, they were awe-inspiring.
First of all, the look of the thing: a scaffolding of three tiers of drums, congas, cymbals, and other percussion. To either side of the stage, two big cases of clear-glass jugs. In another big case, stage left, an acoustic guitar and the corpse of an electric bass. Also at either side, and farther downstage, tubular pneumatic-looking things with bouncing balls inside. Vibes and marimbas and keyboards. It was all elegantly arranged, with little clutter as Metheny wandered the stage freely, triggering the contraption as he played one or another guitar strapped around his neck. As elements played, they flashed small pin lights in time.
The music was Metheny music — lyrical, expansive, exploratory, at times a perfectly balanced blend of Brazilian rhythms and American folk and jazz. And, with all the overlapping rhythms, a dash of Steve Reich and Philip Glass. Especially appealing were those jugs, which could sound like horns, a calliope, or a human chorus. Pretty cool.
Metheny opened the show with a few solo numbers before dramatically unveiling the Orchestrion. In the solo-guitar pieces, the variety of his attack — from power strumming to beboping multi-note runs, and a dazzling mix of multiple lines — was stunning. As was his dynamic lyricism. He played one piece on his specially designed, multi-necked, 42-string Pikasso guitar. Another, “Unity Village,” was originally recorded on his first album in 1975 using overdubbing — then revolutionary, now commonplace.
The Orchestrion is a kind of steampunk throwback (a term with which Metheny has said he’s unfamiliar) — acoustic instruments triggered by solenoid technology. The seeds for the Orchestrion, Metheny told the audience, were planted by a player piano he discovered at his uncle’s house the summer he was nine. The Orchestrion album (released by Nonesuch in January) is what you’d expect from Metheny — pop-like surface accessibility peeling back to reveal harmonic and rhythmic depths. At the Orpheum, he played the album entire, plus more-freely improvised pieces (including a couple of Ornette Coleman themes), and his hit tune from 1992, “Secret Story.” The solenoids (as he explained) make possible a dynamic range unavailable on the player piano. He played for more than two hours (I left during the second encore). So, check that: it was awesome. And exhausting.