On Monday, guitarist Pat Metheny became the first jazz artist to notch three separate headlining appearances at Walt Disney Concert Hall. But instead of bringing a band of all-stars, he arrived with a wall of sound. “Orchestrion,” which Metheny is taking to nearly 40 North American cities to support his new Nonesuch release, is conceptually based on the player piano from the turn of the century, with instruments — and there are many of them — controlled using solenoids and pneumatics. Dissimilar stylistically to his other side-projects, which often find him testing improvisational wits with other ace musicians, this one works in a musical vein quite similar to the Pat Metheny Group.
It’s quite a behemoth Metheny has placed onstage — a three-level set of rigging that holds drums and cymbals of varying sizes plus a bass and a small acoustic guitar. He is flanked by two vibraphones and two sets of gizmos that look like they were either removed from a physics lab or the soft drink dispenser at a county fair. There’s also a grand piano.
Metheny has written that the Orchestrion “merges an idea from the late 19th and early 20th centuries with the technologies of today to create a new, open-ended platform for musical composition, improvisation and performance.”
Metheny, after performing 20 minutes of unaccompanied melodic solo work, starts slowly by performing “Unity Village” from his first album with just a few cymbals behind him. He explained that when he recorded the track in 1975, it was the first time he had ever overdubbed a track — the humble origin of his use of technology that plays out in the five-part “Orchestrion Suite” that filled the bulk of the program.
It’s not a work filled with surprises or unexpected sounds. Metheny is being himself, playing lengthy guitar lines that never seem to break, shifting only slightly in tempos and rarely deviating from the lyricism for which he is so well-known. It’s more fun visually than pretty much any jazz show one might attend: As bass lines crop up or vibes and marimbas marry in stimulating counterpoint, listeners can’t help but scour the stage with their eyes trying to figure where each sound is coming from.
For all the technology present, the project has a remarkably pure and organic musical sound that ventured toward the electronic only when Metheny used — sparingly, thank you — his synthesizer guitar.
The Los Angeles stop featured a one-time-only collection of duets with Brazilian guitarist Romero Lubambo. They took a break from the machine, turning to deft and speedy takes on two bossa nova numbers before turning back to the Orchestrion to see how the trio might tackle Ornette Coleman compositions. The machine eliminated the tension Coleman’s work thrives on and Metheny and Lubambo approached the works with control and attention to melodic detail.
They let loose on a final number in the 2 1/2 hour show as Metheny built a composition from the ground up, triggering loops of a gentle guitar motif, left hand on the piano, a rising and receding synthesizer line and, of course, a considerable wall of percussion. It was a pleasant-sounding, free-form demonstration of how Metheny composed for the invention.
This was the 13th show in a 40-date tour that ends May 22 at Town Hall in New York.