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2012 has been the year of the piano trio with the Vijay Iyer trio, Ahmad Jamal, EST, the Brad Mehldau trio, Neil Cowley trio adding strings, Tingvall trio revealing themselves in the UK for the first time, and Mancunian bright young things GoGo Penguin just some of the notable trios both familiar and less so to release remarkable albums in both critical and popular terms. It’s an enduring format, and one that despite familiarity continues to exceed expectations whether in a classic incarnation based around the songs of the Great American Songbook or increasingly on newly composed or freshly interpreted original material encompassing a whole new world of inspiration, especially when creative solutions to old musical problems are tackled head on. It’s not just about good tunes, because some of the best jazz is completely abstract and unsingable. But it’s certainly partly about band empathy, that thing about “eye contact”, finishing improvisational lines or, more to the point, anticipating the direction of the music in a live situation to create something anew, that ‘moment’ everyone knows when it comes along.

Capturing that in the studio is an art. Coming up in early-2013 Norwegian piano trio In the Country have given this their best shot by releasing what will be their fifth album. In the Country, that’s pianist Morten Qvenild, bassist Roger Arntzen, and drummer Pål Hausken, marked their upcoming 10-year milestone as an improvising unit since forming at music college in Oslo by travelling to Los Angeles, to the Sunset Sound studio to record what will be titled, fittingly, Sunset Sunrise, after the famed Sunset Boulevard studio where Pet Sounds and other classic albums were recorded. Switching labels from Rune Grammofon to the German ACT label, home to the Vijay Iyer Trio and EST, their debut for Siggi Loch’s company has been mixed by Aimee Mann producer Ryan Freeland, who also mixed and engineered Mose Allison’s The Way of the World. With Australian trio Trichotomy releasing Fact Finding Mission and the Neil Cowley Trio adding finishing touches to the mix of their live album they recorded in Montreux, the early part of 2013 already shows signs that jazz’s enduring fascination with this most creative of formats shows no signs of abating.

Stephen Graham

In the Country pictured top: Roger Arntzen (above left), Pål Hausken, and Morten Qvenild. Photo: Jørn Stenersen/ACT. Sunset Sunrise will be released in March

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Kraftwerk knew a thing or two about robots. ‘We’re functioning automatic/And we are dancing mechanic/We are the robots/We are the robots/We are the robots/We are the robots’, as their song, no prizes for guessing, ‘The Robots’, has it. And come to think of it, so too does Pat Metheny, especially robots that with a little help from him like to improvise.

July’s Unity Band gig at the Barbican heralded the birth of a band for Metheny, the first featuring a saxophone in many years, but it also recalled, with a brief guest appearance, the Orchestrion, the “robot band" Metheny has recorded with before, and debuted in the UK on the same London stage in 2010.

On that first occasion, a hugely risky venture as a tour that was both audacious and a summation of Metheny’s naked, consummate artistry channelled through a sophisticated new instrument, something Metheny couldn’t have possibly dreamt of playing all around the world when as a child he was captivated by old player pianos he had become fascinated with. “People either ask ‘why’ or ‘how’,” Metheny told the audience in 2010 at the concert when he unveiled the Orchestrion from behind a curtain, a bit like a travelling magician would with no small ceremony present a bedazzled rabbit from a hat. “Let’s say the ‘why’ is between me and my shrink,” he joked.

Next month the banks of instruments including ‘bots’, drums, percussion, tuned bottles, marimba, vibes, player pianos and more that make up the Orchestrion are back on a double album called The Orchestrion Project (Nonesuch) with this beautiful beast of an instrument controlled once more by Metheny using foot pedals and a system of hydraulics and solenoids.

The highlight of the original album for me at the time was the lovely ballad ‘Soul Search’, and it appears winningly again this time as the lead track of the second disc of the new double album set to be released on 29 January, following recording sessions back in Brooklyn, where the project all began, some time after the world tour in 2010.

The double album includes all of Orchestrion plus eight more Metheny tunes. It’s clearly more than a passing episode in Metheny’s music (the very different Unity Band recording also features the impressionistic ‘Signals [Orchestrion Sketch]’). With the Pat Metheny Group in the long grass, and Metheny’s work with Lyle Mays an increasingly, if slightly frustratingly, distant memory, this expanded set in some ways is a more satisfying experience than the initial album. Partly it’s because the extra length does justice to the sheer scale of the music, and of course because the music is that bit more familiar.

The guitar bots, many percussion instruments, and cabinets of tuned bottles that you’d swear winked, spookily, on the Barbican stage have more personality through the tweaks and roadtested trials Metheny and his technical team have put these through. You’d want a friendly robot like the Orchestrion on your side if push were to come to shove should a sci-fi dystopia come real. It clearly hasn’t let Metheny down.

Stephen Graham

Pat Metheny and the Orchestrion above