June 1 (Bloomberg) -- As a young guitarist, Pat Metheny was inspired by Stevie Wonder’s playing almost every instrument on his groundbreaking 1973 recording, “Innervisions.” He wanted to do something similar.
Last year, Metheny, 55, got his wish by creating an 8-ton wall of instruments that plays structured songs and even improvises along with him via mechanical devices and computer guidance. The result is a 21st-century version of an orchestrion, made up of drums, cymbals, vibraphones and string instruments connected to a Macintosh computer.
“This is ‘Innervisions,’ but a live version,” the guitarist with the Struwwelpeter hair said in an interview. Instruments “have no strengths or skills. They’re ready, willing and able to take ideas and render them audible.”
After releasing “Orchestrion” (Nonesuch) earlier this year, Metheny hit the road with misgivings about how the project would be received live. So far, he has filled many venues with fans and the curious. Now he is heading to Asia, beginning with a stop tonight in Seoul followed by the Japanese cities of Nagoya, Osaka and Tokyo.
“It’s not better than anything else I’ve done and it’s not worse than anything else I’ve done,” he said. “It’s different than anything else, and it’s a different way of being as a musician.”
Metheny hired technicians who linked to a computer an array of instruments, including two Yamaha Disklavier digital pianos, congas, two sets of vibraphones and glass bottles that emulate flutes. Metheny also can play the other instruments onstage through his guitar and an array of pedals.
During a performance last month at New York’s Town Hall, he roamed the stage, stopping before the computer-driven drum and improvising with it as if a player were there.
“The first question many ask is when exactly did you lose your mind?” he said to the audience between songs, sparking laughter.
Once Metheny takes command of the orchestrion, he produces a garden of bright notes and rich percussion dominated by the voice-like tones of his guitar. The instruments, moving like robots, dazzle audiences as they play unmanned. The one-man formula, though, fails to duplicate the feeling Metheny can produce when he’s playing with his regular crew of virtuosos, which includes pianist Lyle Mays and drummer Antonio Sanchez.
The Lee’s Summit, Missouri, native became interested in player pianos as a child. His grandparents in Manitowoc, Wisconsin, kept one in the basement, and Metheny would study its workings.
“It was totally mind-blowing to me,” he said.
Metheny began playing the trumpet as a teen and then switched to the guitar. In 1975, at age 20, he was playing with vibraphonist Gary Burton and recorded his first album, “Bright Size Life.” He subsequently formed the Pat Metheny Group with pianist Lyle Mays. The group has won seven consecutive Grammys for its past seven releases.
Metheny said he won’t abandon human group settings in favor of his mechanical band. After a five-year break, he will tour with the Pat Metheny Group this summer in Europe beginning June 29 in Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia.
Then he will bring the orchestrion tour back to the U.S. in October with more than a dozen dates in cities including Louisville, Kentucky; Princeton, New Jersey; Montreal; and Buffalo, New York.
“The orchestrion doesn’t replace anything I’ve done,” he said. “It’s just one more thing for me to do musically.”
(Metheny performs his Orchestrion project June 1 and June 3-5 in Seoul; June 9 in Osaka; June 10 in Nagoya; and June 11-12 in Tokyo. For tour information, click here.
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