About halfway through his appearance at the Center for the Arts on Saturday, Pat Metheny paused to address the crowd.
“Two questions arise in regards to what I’m doing up here,” the revered jazz guitarist, composer and bandleader said. “The first is, ‘Pat, just exactly when did you lose your mind?’ The second is, ‘How does all of this work?’ ”
This was ostensibly a solo Metheny show, but somehow, none of the conventional language one might lean on to describe such an event is up to the job. No one has ever done anything like this on such a grand scale. It’s virgin terrain.
Metheny was the only human on the stage throughout Saturday’s three-hour performance, but an incredibly complex, lush and intricately orchestrated sound bounced around the gorgeous acoustic environs of the Center for the Arts. The guitarist was performing with his Orchestrion, a large ensemble’s worth of instruments being triggered by a complex system of robotics.
The first question Metheny posed was apropos. Saturday’s concert certainly boasted a freak-show aspect.
After opening with an acoustic segment that found the guitarist offering a sort of improvised medley of pieces that he said “reflected my thoughts and feelings on 30 years of playing in Buffalo” — this included a gorgeous rendering of “This Is Not America,” one of the man’s most enduring pieces — Metheny brought out the Orchestrion. This turned out to be a towering, scaffold-like collection of robotic instruments that encompassed pianos, marimbas, tuned bottles, guitar, bass, cymbals, drums, and a host of other custom-concocted noisemakers, all controlled in real time by Metheny and his array of foot pedals.
This was completely dazzling to behold, even solely from a technical perspective, as Metheny and the Orchestrion performed incredibly complex and dynamic pieces without a single noticeable mistake. He performed the whole “Orchestrion” album, with highlights including the Frank Zappa-inflected title piece, and the emotionally incisive, yearning-infused “Soul Search.”
Not surprisingly, Metheny’s guitar playing was consistently outstanding, redolent of the man’s ability to bring searing be bop lines into a conversation that also includes classical themes, folk references, and that gorgeous, sun-tinted Midwestern blend of all of these things that marks Metheny’s music as instantly identifiable, regardless of context.
The cumulative effect of this impressive gadgetry and stellar musicianship was much more than the presentation of some mere parlor trick, however.
This was profound, interesting, soulful and genre-busting music performed by a man clearly consumed by the potential of his own artistic imagination. The Orchestrion project is another chapter in what has been one of the most fascinating musical stories of our time.