A weird idea for a performance (call it an art project) and even weirder for an album, The Orchestrion Project is the newest release from the jazz guitar/fusion legend, Pat Metheny. The guitarist first wowed audiences in 1976 with Bright Size Life, an album of originals with equally wunderkind-ish bassist Jaco Pastorius. This album is all computer-programmed and played by robotic creatures of Methenyâ€™s own twisted but passionate devise.
The album mostly lives up to expectation: itâ€™s strange. For instance, the song â€œAntoniaâ€ features chimes, accordions, and interesting percussive elements, but all these seem programmed and unemotional. What is the benefit to the listener? Metheny may have control over all his musical ideas at once, but it ends up sounding like a practice exercise rather than a supreme musical experiment. As for improvisational music, this sounds disappointingly formulaic. Worse yet, the record lacks both the intimacy of earlier Metheny projects like the 1997 duo album, Beyond the Missouri Sky, with bassist Charlie Haden.
The double album is not without great moments. â€œExpansionâ€ is classic Metheny: liquid-fire, mercury-cool, ray gun-like guitar lines over unique, rhythmically unrelenting harmonies. Halfway through, all the robotic instruments soar like a rich German symphony; it’s a buildup so intense that you forget what you are listening to is human music performed by programmed gadgets and gizmos. But other old songs, like â€œUnity Village,â€ sound plain silly with pre-programmed tambourine and an Iâ€™m-soloing-with-myself mentality. I never cared for Bill Evansâ€™ Conversations with Myself, anyway. All the great music is about telepathy, not technology.
So dear jazz musicians, hold back the crazy scientist within you, and leave the experimentation to the actual music.