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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