Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Pat Metheny’s Orchestrion: Concert Review

When: Sunday, May 9, 2010 • Where: Fitzgerald TheaterWho: Pat Metheny

At the Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul, home of Garrison Keillor’s “A Prairie Home Companion,” the stage looks like a warehouse full of miscellaneous equipment. A drab brown curtain hangs toward the back.

Pat Metheny, carrying a guitar, wearing a long-sleeved black T-shirt, black pants, and sneakers, his hair a fuzzy nimbus, walks out and mouths “Hello” and “Thanks for coming.” He plays something lush and chordy. A roadie runs out with guitar number 2 and Metheny gives us another beautiful tune, making six strings sound like sixty.

Back comes the roadie, this time with the Pikasso, the Hummer-sized hybrid with four necks and 42 strings. The main neck seems to function like a Chapman stick; Metheny touches the strings but doesn’t pluck them. The sound is exquisite, room-filling.

The mighty Pikasso

The roadie returns with guitar number 4, an Ibanez hollowbody.

As Metheny plays, small cymbals on a table to his right start to ring. Behind him, a stick lays a simple rhythm on a hi-hat. Lights spark on each instrument when it sounds. Metheny plays guitar over what becomes a rather monotonous, mechanical-sounding beat.

This is Orchestrion? Ho-hum.

Then the curtain lifts and the audience gasps. (Others have written about this. It’s true.) Behind Metheny is a wall of racks supporting dozens of percussion instruments and metal arms that will be used to strike, brush, or shake them.

This photograph from a concert in Amsterdam shows a slightly different arrangement than the one at the Fitz but close enough to give you a good idea.

Copyright hansspeekenbrink.nl

The finger cymbals and hi-hat were a tease. Now Metheny plays and the wall lights up and moves. Along with the percussion instruments, his mechanical array includes two Yamaha Diskclaviers, marimba, vibraphone, bells, basses, guitarbots, and cabinets filled with dozens of tuned bottles. It’s an antic hardware store, a mad inventor’s lair, Disney’s Fantasia or an Animusic film. (Guitarist Paul Metsa, who’s sitting behind us, would later write on Facebook: “Like sprung from Terry Gilliam’s head.”) Metheny stands in the midst of it, controlling it all with his fingers and feet. This is a solo performance, a one-man band to the nth degree.

He comes to the end of the tune, then exits stage left to where a monitor glows. Returning, he asks if we’d like to hear it again. He explains that he forgot to say “next” at a particular time, and he thought his solo could have been better.

As we hear the next several selections from the “Orchestrion Suite,” I wonder how much of the performance is programmed and how much is real-time, in-the-moment music. Is this composition and improvisation or gimmickry? I think of the Guggenheim Bilbao, a museum I visited a few years back. The building itself is so spectacular that I’ve forgotten the art I saw inside. Is Orchestrion an edifice? Is the architecture the point?

Colorful moving images glide across the drumheads and cabinet fronts. They look like animations, then resolve into forms—mallets hitting surfaces, bells shaking, Metheny’s hands, Metheny’s hair. Apparently the construct also includes cameras.

I like what I’m seeing and hearing—it’s enormously entertaining—but I wonder if I’m supposed to like it. Who's on stage, a great guitarist or Oz the Great and Terrible?

“I extra triple appreciate your coming out tonight,” Metheny says, “because I’m sure you had no idea what you were getting into.” He explains the origins of the Orchestrion project: his 9-year-old self, fascinated by his grandfather’s pneumatic (pump-driven) player piano; a lifelong dream of creating a mechanical orchestra; the availability of solenoids, which allow for variations in volume and dynamics (“so music can tell a story”); collaborations with makers of robotic musical instruments. He says that the first tune he played tonight was “Unity Village” from Bright Size Life (1975). “That was my first chance to do an overdub, and this [Orchestrion] is an extreme version.”

The tireless roadie brings out guitar number 5. It has two sets of strings: one running lengthwise down the body, the other reaching from side to side. As Metheny plays a solo, little mechanical fingers inside the guitar pluck the strings from behind. (If you go to this show, bring binoculars.) It's a little creepy.

Metheny tells us more about the Orchestrion project—how his wife thought he was crazy, and how each performance requires doing a million things on stage, most of which we never see. He demonstrates making loops and layers until every instrument on stage is sounding and he goes to guitar number 6 (brought out by the roadie and placed on a stand at playing height), swings guitar number 5 around to his back, and wails.

I wonder why Metheny didn’t use samples and synths instead of creating his complex mechanical orchestra (which must be a nightmare to move from place to place; how did he get it to Europe and back?). He has said in at least one interview that he wanted sounds that are alive, the sonority of notes mixing in the air, not in a speaker. The drums and cymbals heard on the recording (not sure about the live shows) belong to Jack DeJohnette, and the mallets that play the marimba and vibes are Gary Burton’s.

One thing Metheny doesn’t say is “I’m Pat Metheny and I can do what I want.” After 35 years of recording and performing, 17 Grammys, countless bests, and thousands of live performances, he has earned the right to do something he has always longed to try, as strange as it may seem. Whether we like the results or not, we have to give him that.

Near the end, Metheny plays something slow and lovely, full of bells and bottles, like a muted calliope. Then something lively accompanied by his mechanical orchestra. His joy at playing with his big toy band is contagious. He returns for two encores.

I look at my watch for the first time all evening. It’s 10:30. He’s been playing for almost three hours with no intermission. He leaves to a standing ovation, the house lights come up, and workers swarm the stage to start the teardown. The show goes on again in Chicago in fewer than 24 hours.

Crappy iPhone photo of teardown

Some live performances are unforgettable, not always for the right reasons. I don’t think we heard Metheny play the best he’s ever played (how could he, with all those distractions?), or that his “Orchestrion Suite” is the best music he’s ever written, or that the Orchestrion was the best idea he’s ever had or will have.

But I don’t care. For three hours, I was glued to a maroon velvet seat, fascinated by what I was seeing and hearing, by the scale of Metheny's idea and the incomprehensibility of its execution, the audacity of his vision, the generosity of his label (Nonesuch), the willingness of the sold-out (or nearly sold-out) crowd to come out and hear him (many bought their tickets through Metheny’s fan site the day they went on sale), and the uniqueness of the experience. I know I’ll never repeat it.

And even if I could, I wouldn’t. Bill Brownlee, who writes the terrific blog Plastic Sax (about jazz in Kansas City), saw the Orchestrion show two months ago in Rome and again in Kansas City earlier this month. “With the element of surprise no longer a factor,” he wrote on Facebook, “the flaws (in my opinion, of course) of the Orchestrion were more obvious and disappointing. I highly recommend that everyone try to catch this show. Just don’t go twice.”

Once is enough, and what’s wrong with that? In retrospect, I did too much wondering. If you’re reading this and Metheny is coming your way, just go. Gasp when the curtain rises and the Orchestrion is revealed in all its wacky glory. Step into the rollercoaster car, lower the bar, hold on and enjoy.

Much more on Orchestrion here, including a short film.
A piece of a pro-Orchestrion article from JazzTimes.
StarTribune critic Jon Bream disses the show.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Jazz poetry and live jazz: Poet Marilyn Nelson to read at the Loft

Originally published at MinnPost,com, Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Marilyn Nelson
During World War II, bandleader Artie Shaw toured the South Pacific with a Navy band. Glenn Miller died when his airplane disappeared over the English Channel. At one point during the war, more than 60 jazz bandleaders were serving in America’s armed forces. Swing bands were disbanded when their members enlisted or were drafted.

Yet the music played on, thanks to more than 100 “all-girl” bands who toured the country, playing for dances and crowds hungry for a good time. One of the most famous bands was the International Sweethearts of Rhythm, the first integrated women’s swing band in the world and the subject of a new book by poet Marilyn Nelson.

In “Sweethearts of Rhythm,” Nelson tells the band’s story in swinging, syncopated verses from an unusual point of view: that of the instruments themselves. The alto sax details their travels and the audiences they drew. The tenor sax describes the challenges faced by an integrated band, which was illegal at that time in the South. (To avoid being arrested, the white members had to wear dark makeup and wigs on stage so they could pass as black. There were close calls on sweaty nights.) The trumpet explains:

Musicians walk a tightrope. Below them lie madness and beauty.
The world was aflame, the men soldiering at the front.
The Sweethearts had no philosophy. They just did their duty.
A girl has to trumpet down Jericho, if a man can’t.

Nelson will read from “Sweethearts” at the Loft this Friday at 7 p.m. She will be accompanied by area jazz artists Donald Washington on saxophone/clarinet and Faye Washington on flute. Formerly of Detroit, the Washingtons are educators as well as musicians and parents of drummer Kevin Washington.

Nelson served as the judge for this year’s McKnight Artist Fellowships for Writers, Loft Awards in Poetry/Spoken Word Poetry. The winners she selected, Kirsten Dierking, Susan Carol Hauser, Michael Larson and Elisabeth Workman, will be introduced and acknowledged. A reception following the reading will give audience members a chance to meet and greet the poets.

Nelson is the author or translator of 12 books of poetry including three National Book Award finalists and three Coretta Scott King Honor Books. She is the former poet laureate of Connecticut (2001-06), founder and director of Soul Mountain Retreat, a writers’ colony, and a professor emeritus at the University of Connecticut. She also has Minnesota connections. She earned her Ph.D. from the University of Minnesota and taught for a time at St. Olaf College in Northfield.

Earlier this week, Nelson was a guest on KFAI’s “Rhythm and Grooves” hosted by Larry Englund (who happens to be a Sweethearts fan). Listen here (it’s the 5/4/2010 show). Here’s a video of the Sweethearts themselves performing four songs. Their biggest hit, “Jump Children,” starts at the 2:45 mark.

Marilyn Nelson reads from “Sweethearts of Rhythm,” Friday, May 7, 7 p.m., The Loft Literary Center, Suite 200, Open Book, 1011 Washington Ave. S., Minneapolis ($5; free to Loft members).