Posted by: russdavis | May 15, 2010

Russ Davis on Pat Metheny’s “ORCHESTRION”


(Russ Davis on the marriage of one of MOJA’s main men and his machines!)

 15 May, 2010

 It’s always a treat to catch up with the great guitarist, composer, bandleader, 17-time Grammy Award winner and true musical visionary, Pat Metheny.  Here’s a guy who is so accomplished, evolved and intelligent but just as down-to-earth as that buddy or girlfriend of yours down the street that you grew up with.  His latest work, the brilliant marriage of man and machine called “Orchestrion,” is a fitting addition to the body of work by a man who has carved out his own place in modern music.  Just as we here on MOJA Radio ( call our brand of Modern Jazz MOJA, I find myself calling the music made by this great master simply Pat Metheny Music instead of jazz.  A rose by any other name, you know!

I first met Pat around 1980 in Atlanta where I was programming and presenting the show JAZZ FLAVOURS on the station known as 94Q. I’d just witnessed a performance from one the legendary first tours of The Pat Metheny Group at the beautiful Fox Theatre.  I interviewed Pat backstage in the historic hall where I knew I had witnessed history and heard music by a man, and a group, that had much more to say.  On another night in the same hall I talked to Pat about the performance of “The First Circle,” that had the entire hall stunned at its conclusion, so struck with the majesty of that brilliant piece that we all stood silent for a few seconds before erupting in deafening applause. Pat talked that night about how important that piece was to him, that he’d accomplished something he was very serious about, the long-form with dynamics and movements beyond the simple song.  Over the years he’s done more of the same, accomplished things he truly wanted to.  And that leads me to my thoughts about his latest effort, his solo work titled “Orchestrion.

A few years ago, Pat was the keynote speaker at the conference of the International Association for Jazz Education in New York City. The speech was very well received by the crowd though I’m sure that somewhere in the hall were a number of those “jazz police,” as some jazz traditionalists have been jokingly called, who have questioned whether much of Pat’s music is actually jazz at all.  Those people probably didn’t appreciate one of the statements he made, and I paraphrase here…”You record executives may someday have a young cat enter your office with a laptop computer under their arm. Don’t dismiss him or her because the future of jazz just may be in that computer.” That statement has always stayed with me and especially came to mind when I found myself on the phone with Pat in the Autumn of 2009 talking about a project he was working on that eventually became “Orchestrion.” The first thing he told me was “I’m sort of not using the word robots because it scares everyone!”  I imagine he was a little fearful that some people just would not understand and would dismiss the music before hearing it.  After hearing it and finding that it was just more brilliant, unique Pat Metheny music and Pat guitar lines played with a new “band” that just happened to be electronically triggered instruments I wrote him an email to tell him just that and he replied, “I really appreciate it! The main thing for me in all of this has been the musical result. It is really gratifying that you ‘got it’ like that.”

There have been lots of articles, blogs, etc as well as pieces on Pat’s own website that have explained how the “band” was put together and how it works.  It took some very intelligent inventors and technicians lots of time, energy and hard work to give human quality to these instruments. Pat was obviously in the trenches with them toiling away to craft the elements of the “band” so they could “respond” via solenoid switch technology, and pneumatics in the way he needed them to so that the music could be perfected and his original vision realized.  That original inspiration may be my second favorite aspect of this project, after the music of course. It was born of a childhood experience that made an indelible impression on Pat.  As you may know, he was raised in the Kansas City suburb of Lee’s Summit, Missouri, but his grandparents lived in Wisconsin.  From time to time the family would visit them and he and his siblings, among them the accomplished trumpeter Mike Metheny who you’ve hopefully been hearing recently on MOJA Radio, would go down into the basement where his grandpa had a player piano.  As the young Pat watched this instrument come to life, a seed was planted that eventually led to what we have today in the form of this wonderful work “Orchestrion.” And that leads me to my final point…the childlike attitude that happy, creative, purposeful and accomplished people like Pat Metheny acquire and maintain. This is another example of something I want to personally learn from this project that is even more meaningful than enjoying this great music. I see how a very young man, watching the action of and hearing the music made by what many would think of as an inanimate object, captures that sense of wonder and carries it over to his adulthood and uses it to create something truly great.  Why can’t all of us do the same?  Why can’t we remember what it was like when we were children, when everything was new and exciting, and maintain that attitude every day of our lives forever?  It’s a dream I have and a plan I want to put it into practice every day.  So Pat, thanks for the great music buddy, and thanks for the reminder! Oh, and thanks so much for “Orchestrion” too…YOU DID IT!


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