Orchestrion contains five terrific songs. In fact, my main beef with this project is that it is too short at 51 or so minutes. I wanted more. Much more.
The title track opens the set with Metheny’s trademark runs and textures like some kind of furious painter, here accompanied by one of the percussion instruments, there by a piano, all controlled at the guitar. It reminded me in some places of the most moving sections of The Way Up. But this is one guy, not a whole band. And this song stands well on its own.
“Entry Point” is the second tune, one reminiscent of Metheny’s softer, more introspective pieces like “The Bat.” With the exception of some piano tinkling here and there, it is very much a trio piece, with the bass guitar and percussion doing more than filling in the space around the melody and solos.
The middle song on Orchestrion is “Expansion.” Here I am reminded of some of the group projects recorded during the 90s. Again the texture built with the other instruments makes Metheny’s lightening solos shine even brighter. Like the other songs on this album, I was amazed by the composition around which the improvisations fly. The song ran to a fantastic climax as well as my favorite songs from Speaking Of Now, “Proof” and “The Gathering Sky.”
“Soul Search” is an interesting suite of a tune. The first four minutes are a gorgeous ballad, but then we are treated some bluesy chords and runs that are likely to have feet tapping. At the six and a half minute mark, the song returns to its theme, resolving nicely like the last sip of your favorite drink.
The project closes with the beautiful and stirring “Spirit of the Air.” This song is my favorite. (That is, until I start the disc over and hear the other four). I’m not a fan of the cymbal play about four minutes in, but the solo there is sweet and lively, and when Metheny returns to the head of the song I find myself grinning so wide each time I hear it, my face hurts. But that’s mighty fine pain!
At first, I was a little put off that each song on Orchestrion reminded me of other tunes in Metheny’s extensive canon. But these are not knock off pieces now getting space. Metheny is a consummate bandleader, and though this is a solo album, he is still leading a real band, not just playing an interesting array of instruments. One might even argue that for his first foray into this territory, he is wise to avoid too much experimentation in sound. One might also argue that the new instruments are enough experimentation to satisfy most adventurous listeners. And as a composer, Pat Metheny ranks among the best of our time. I can easily see (or hear) these tracks being covered by any number of artists, in small groups, solo, or big bands. The more I listen to Orchestrion, the more I remember that the music is the thing. Here, it is a rather wondrous thing.