“Music, of all the liberal arts, has the greatest influence over the passions, and it is that to which the legislator ought to give the greatest encouragement.”
To read other Quotations of the Week click here.
“Music, of all the liberal arts, has the greatest influence over the passions, and it is that to which the legislator ought to give the greatest encouragement.”
To read other Quotations of the Week click here.
By Roger Crane
Jazz and pop, no matter how symbiotic their relationship, never lodge at the same inn too long. Although related, Jazz is not pop. The music called jazz is not popular music for that is not the intent. Sure, jazz artists wish to make a living, and hopefully a good living, but the honest ones do not “water down” their music to appeal to the masses. In fact, most jazz players wouldn’t even know how, for — as the cliche goes — “you don’t choose jazz, it chooses you.” Unlike pop, much jazz is a demanding virtuoso music. In fact, the type of jazz known as “bop” is surely the most virtuoso music ever to take root in the American vernacular, just as rock music is very likely the most elemental.
Unlike most popular music, jazz requires great skill and that is why many jazz artists can play effective classical music, although most classical players cannot play convincing jazz. Their performance may be perfectly executed but the jazz component of the chosen piece is lost, since very few classical musicians can generate the momentum we call “swing.” Classical music is a composer’s art. Even the record stores reflect this fact by organizing the CDs via composer name (Bach to Wagner, for instance). But jazz is a performer’s art and we find the CDs arranged by performer name (Armstrong to Zeitlin, for instance).
Why the emphasis on this seemingly minor point? Well, because, when one listens to jazz, we are not listening to hear Carmichael and Gershwin melodies as composed, we are listening for a jazz artist’s interpretation. The best jazz musicians not only know what they are doing, but do it with a unique voice. We expect the unexpected, the utterly illuminating.
In his notes for the art portfolio “Jazz,” noted French artist Henri Matisse quotes his fellow painter Auguste Renoir as having said, “When I have arranged a bouquet, in order to paint it, I go around to the side that I have not looked at.” In a sense, that is what great jazz musicians do when they interpret a piece of musical material, whether it’s a Gershwin ballad, a composed blues, or an original composition. Jazz musicians are especially adept at “going around to the side they have not looked at. ”Their intention is always to say something musically interesting about a piece by revealing a facet of it that is not readily obvious – and to do so spontaneously, by improvisation. And the best ones do that with a voice and style as unmistakably their own as is the artistic style of Matisse, or Renoir, or Van Gogh. The great jazz writer Whitney Balliett once observed that “Jazz is the art of surprise.” Note that word, he did not say that jazz is the art of recognition – rather, surprise and that surprise often derives from seeing that “other side.” Thus, unlike most pop, we can say that jazz is “idea” music and a sophisticated listener is anticipating and listening to hear those “other side” ideas.
Also, unlike most popular music, at the heart of jazz lies the improvisation of all three music components: melody, harmony and rhythm, which implies freshness, originality and, at its best, enchantment. In fact, the better jazz performers “write” new songs with every chorus they play. Whether alchemizing songs from the Great American Songbook or illuminating some shopworn old blues, they are songwriters as surely as Gershwin. “Tell your story” a jazz fan sometimes shouts out and indeed the jazz artists do. A popular artist tells a story too, of course, but he is telling the composer’s story, very often one that the audience already knows and wishes to hear again. Thus, pop music also tends to be a composer’s music, whereas, as noted, jazz is a performer’s music that reflects his or her ideas.
Admittedly, displays of technique can quickly wear thin in the world of jazz improvising. How many rapid arpeggios, scales and runs can the listener’s mind absorb — or care to absorb. Admiring technique for technique’s sake is a short-term satisfaction. All it really shows us is that the player knows his instrument but doesn’t show us that he has heart. The best jazz artists play music not notes and you can be a technical wizard and not make any music. The improvisation, the technique should always be in service to the music. When the piece subsides we should not be saying “Man, can that guy play!” we should be saying “Man, that piece was beautiful (or exciting, or both)!” The very best jazz artists can often play only a simple phrase and melt every heart in the room. The famous trumpeter, Harry “Sweets” Edison had that ability, as did saxophonist Lester Young and his friend, vocalist Billie Holiday.
For the very reasons noted above jazz, unlike pop, is a minority art. As the saying goes, it takes “good ears” to appreciate it and thus jazz is not for everybody. Except for the big band/Swing era when good music was popular and popular music was good, the popularity of jazz is usually down in the single digits. Rock is performed in packed stadiums with flashing lights, smoke and mirrors. Jazz is performed in a corner of a restaurant or hotel lobby, often with a dozen or less patrons. The jazz community is confined and intimate and thus the followers tend to bond and to know one another. If a jazz artist does become popular, he is often looked upon by the cognoscenti with suspicion. “Aha, he sold out” might be the cry. The very people who claim to love jazz are often the ones who secretly do not want it to have a large audience, since that would vitiate their claim to special perception. True, popularity and quality are separate attributes, but occasionally they do reside together. For instance, despite his popularity, the great Louis Armstrong never “sold out.”
Jazz is many things: it is exciting, it is challenging (and even prickly), it is often elegant. The best jazz artists are making our world “new.” That is, they are overcoming the deadening effects of habit and our perceptions and allowing us to hear with new ears. Unlike rock — and all of its various cousins (rap, hip-hop, etc) — jazz requires we patrons to meet the performers half way and to actively Listen. (Yes, the capital L is intended).
To read more of Roger Crane’s reviews and articles check out his website, The Song Scout.
By Don Heckman
- April 26. (Mon.) Karen Marguth Quintet. Featuring Eva Scow, mandolin. Singer Marguth and mandolinist Scow have been producing some fascinating displays of briskly swinging voice and mandolin jazz. Hear them in the always friendly, laid-back setting of Charlie O’s. Charlie O’s. (919) 994-3058.
- April 28. (Wed.) Kevin Eubanks Group. With Marvin “Smitty” Smith, drums, Rene Camacho, bass and Gerry Etkins, keyboards. Eubanks always swings hard, but with this rhythm section, the room itself will be rocking. Baked Potato. (818) 980-1615.
- April 29. (Thurs.) Hart & Soul. Jennifer Hart and Llew Matthews. Singer Hart and pianist Matthews have been teaming up lately to combine their unique talents, enhanced on the numbers in which Matthews adds his own vocals. Steamers. (714) 871-8800.
- April 29. (Thurs.) John Daversa’s Progressive Big Band. Daversa’s an a-list player for other big bands around town. But he’s at his best when he’s leading his own aggregation through a program of envelope-stretching large ensemble sounds. Vitello’s. (818) 769-0905.
- April 30. (Fri.) Anat Cohen. With Benny Green, Peter Washington and Lewis Nash. New York’s finest (no, not the NYPD) makes a too rare, too limited Southland appearance. Cohen is matching her fine saxophone playing with the most stellar clarinet work we’ve heard in years. Green, Washington and Nash add their Manhattan groove to the proceedings. Don’t miss this one. Catalina Bar & Grill. (323) 466-2210.
- April 30. (Fri.) Anthony Wilson Nonet. Everybody knows Wilson’s a remarkable guitarist. But he’s a great arranger/composer, as well, especially when he’s writing for the wide open possibilities of his nine piece band. Vitello’s. (818) 769-0905.
- April 30. (Fri.) Gaea Schell Trio. Schell likes to describe herself as a pianist who also sings. But that doesn’t quite do justice to the briskly swinging musicality she brings to both her piano work and her vocals. Café Metropol. (213) 613-1537.
- April 30. (Fri.) Charles Owens with the John Heard Trio. The ever-versatile saxophonist/woodwind artist Owens is one of the Southland’s too little acknowledged jazz treasures. Charlie O’s. (919) 994-3058.
- April 30 & May 1. (Fri. & Sat.) “Chanteur” Lee Lessack. The appealing Lessack baritone is applied to a collection of songs reaching from Mercer to Brel, from Broadway to Paris, from Sinatra to Azvenour, and from Leonard Cohen to Michel Legrand. The Gardenia. West Hollywood. (323) 467-7444
- May 1. (Sat.) S.T.A.G.E. 2010 “Original Cast” The 26th annual Southland Theatre Artists Goodwill Event features performances by Tyne Daley, Donna McKechnie, Betty Garrett, Dale Kristien, Sally Struthers, Michelle Lee and many others in their original cast performances. At the Luckman Fine Arts Complex. S.T.A.G.E. (866) 679-0958.
- May 1. (Sat.) South Pasadena Eclectic Music Festival. Music of every style and genre will be coursing through the streets and byways of Pasadena on Saturday. Among the headliners: David Lindley, The Elliot Caine Quintet, Sarah Taylor & Bill Mumy, and many others, performing at six venues throughout the city, five of which have no admission fee. South Pasadena Eclectic Music Festival.
- May 1. (Sat.) “H.M.S. Pinafore” New York Gilbert & Sullivan Players. The foibles of the English class system of the 19th century come vividly to life in Gilbert’s whimsical lyrics and Sullivan’s memorable melodies. Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts. http://www.cerritoscenter.com (562) 916-8500.
- May 2. (Sun.) The Bill Cunliffe Septet. The Johnny Crawford Orchestra. The first event in this year’s Playboy Jazz Festival Free Community Concerts features a pair of entertaining jazz acts. Pianist/composer/arranger Cunliffe, fresh off the receipt of a Grammy Award, leads his dynamic septet in a program that will no doubt embrace his re-imagining of Oliver Nelson’s “The Blues and the Abstract Truth,” as well as his fascination with Latin jazz rhythms. The Crawford Orchestra, led by former child actor (notably on TV’s The Rifleman) Johnny Crawford, is a vintage big band, specializing in famous orchestrations from the first half of the 20th century. The program takes place at the Beverly Hills Civic Center Plaza. Playboy Jazz Festival Free Community Concert. (310) 450-1173.
- April 25. (Sun.) Yve Evans. She sings jazz, she sings blues, she sings gospel. And she accompanies herself with hard swinging piano backing. Evans is, in other words, the real deal. Hear her in the best possible setting — the KJAZZ Sunday Champagne Brunch hosted by the irrepressible Bubba Jackson at Twist Restaurant in the Renaissance Hollywood Hotel. (562) 985-2999.
- May 2. (Sun.) John Pizzarelli. “The Sinatra Songbook.” Who better to do the Frank Sinatra songbook than another Italian musician from New Jersey. Although his voice is very different from Ol’ Blue Eyes, Pizzarelli has the same masterful approach to phrasing a song and telling a musical story. Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts. (562) 916-8500.
- May 2. (Sun.) Julie Esposito. Not only can Julie sing almost anything, but she can sing it with style, spirit and imagination. Hopefully, she and the Desert Cities Jazz Band will find a way to include selections from her latest album, Unsung Hollywood, featuring intriguing film songs that never quite received the attention they deserved. At Vicky’s of Santa Fe, 45-100 Club Drive, Indian Wells. 2 – 5 p.m. (760) 345-9770.
- April 30. (Sat.) Raul Midon. Raul Midón brings a lot of influences together – combining his lyrical vocals, his flamenco-tinged guitar with touches of soul, funk and jazz. But he never loses touch with his own, richly personal style. He’ll no doubt include selections from his recent album, Synthesis. Anthology, San Diego. (619) 595-0300. Midon also appears on Sunday in an SFJAZZ concert at San Francisco’s Palace of Fine Arts Theatre. (866) 920-5299.
- April 26. (Mon.) Linda Kosut and Jack Pollard. Singer Kosut points out that Monday is National Pretzel Day and Richter Scale Day. She also adds that it will be “When Worlds Collide” when the two veteran vocalists pair their eclectic musical interests, and skills. (Kosut didn’t say whether pretzels would be served.) The Rrazz Room. (415) 394-1189.
- April 26. (Mon.) Keith Emerson and Greg Lake. The sixties and seventies return when Emerson and Lake revive the music of Emerson, Lake & Palmer as well as the sounds of another closely related pair of bands, The Nice and King Crimson. The Regency Ballroom. (415) 673-5716.
- April 27 – 30. (Tues. – Fri.) Ann Hampton Callaway & Liz Callaway. Sibling revelry takes over, as the gifted Callaway sisters lay their chops on the line with a set of engaging musical efforts to prove “I can sing anything better than you….yes I can.” The Rrazz Room. (415) 394-1189.
- April 30 – May 2. (Fri. – Sun.) Hiroshima. One of the bands that established the early world jazz blends of disparate elements – in their case, jazz fusion rhythms with the koto playing of June Koramoto. Yoshi’s Oakland. (510) 238-9200.
- April 27 – May 1. (Tues. – Sat.) Steve Kuhn, Ron Carter and Joey Baron. Pianist Kuhn and bassist Carter, two of jazz’s greatest veterans, have been playing together on and off for more than forty years. Add the experienced drumming of Baron to the mix and the result should be a rare jazz experience. Birdland. (212) 581-3080.
- April 27 – May 2 (Tues. – Sun.) The Heath Brothers. Saxophonist Jimmy and drummer Albert “Tootie” keep the honored Heath jazz flame alive with the aid of Jeb Patton, piano and Corcoran Holt, bass. Village Vanguard. (212) 255-4037.
- April 27 – May 2. (Tues. – Sun.) Madeleine Peyroux. The enigmatic singer, whose most recent album, Bare Bones, took her in the direction of singer/songwriter, may be unpredictable. But she’s always worth hearing, and especially so since she’s moved beyond her too obvious affection for Billie Holiday, into her own expressive realm. The Blue Note. l (212) 475-8592.
- April 27 – May 2. (Tues. – Sun.) Samba Jazz & the Music of Jobim. Duduka Da Fonseca and Helio Alves lead a musical expedition to explore the colorful territory in which jazz and Brazilian music share common ground. Dizzy’s Club Coca Cola. (212) 258-9595.
By Tony Gieske
The myriad kudos Ron King has collected saluting his work as one of the town’s greatest professional trumpet players were nowhere in evidence on the bandstand at Charlie O’s Saturday night. There was not so much as a T-shirt.
He got right down to business with a strange black plastic mute in his horn and a mellow ballad coming out, although without the customary overtones that give the sound a dusty surface. His usual perch as lead trumpet in a recording orchestra gives him a magisterial perspective on the melody.
King’s improvisational output, however, seemed coldly efficient, however brilliantly decorated with impossibly swift and wide gruppeti, which are turns; huge skips from top to bottom and back again in the blink of an eye; and spectacular slides into third base.
The well-chosen rhythm section brought welcome vivacity to the classic number “Sister Sadie.” King got to swinging pretty good on this one, not all that much of a feat on a great Horace Silver head. And with Lorca Hart, drums; Jimmy Cox, piano, and the extraordinary Brandino on bass, the forward motion was unstoppable here, as it was on the up-tempo successors “Perdido” and a Woody Shaw original.
Yet I listened in vain for a little bebop from the leader, or a few blues licks. It was just one miraculous technical feat after another, a truly impressive recital of brass-playing skill and power. With an exception: Very skinny above the staff, he was.
Cox knew his bebop quite well and improvisational riches flowed from his keyboard, fresh and authoritative. Brandino, whose usual credit is Kevin Brandon, has backed Justin Timberlake, Mary J. Blige, Beyonce and Stevie Wonder on some recent Grammy contenders, among other distinguished gigs. He knows just what to do, no matter where, what or when, bebop or not, and Hart partnered him flawlessly.
By Michael Katz
When I last saw the Monterey Jazz Festival All-Stars, they were opening the 52nd MJF before a raucous Friday night crowd, the hour allotted to them not nearly enough to hold all their collective talents. Seven months later, in the more restrained environment of UCLA’s Royce Hall, I caught up with them again. Though the atmosphere is different, their current extended tour has given them the chance to explore the nuances of their interconnected skills, a prevailing theme at Friday’s performance presented by UCLA Live.
As super groups go, this version of the Monterey All-Stars is pretty impressive. You could make a strong argument for Russell Malone, Regina Carter and Kurt Elling to be in the top handful of performers on their instruments (or voice), and when you add Kenny Barron’s compositional skills to his piano artistry, the combination is hard to beat. Kiyoshi Kitagowa provided steady bass work with some fine soloing, and Johnathan Blake nearly stole the show in several places with some inventive brushwork.
The group led off with McCoy Tyner’s “Effendi,” with lyrics supplied by Kurt Elling. As expected, the opening gave each member a chance to stretch out with extended solos, followed by an energetic trading of 8-bar riffs by all four headliners. From that point, the group began to splinter off into various permutations. Regina Carter, providing a sense of decorum, introduced “When I Get Too Old To Dream,” deferring to Elling on a softly swinging vocal while she and Malone provided lilting counterpoints to the melody.
Kenny Barron took over, raising the temperature with the first of his several compositions for the evening, “NY Attitude,” a straight trio number ably abetted by Kitagowa and Blake. Barron and Blake, though separated in years, both have large physiques that belie the dexterity of their playing. Watching Barron in this trio setting, you sometimes have to pinch yourself that the complex chordal riffs you are hearing match up with the seemingly effortless playing reported by your eyes.
Russell Malone returned with a tribute to the late Herb Ellis, a soft, sweet version of Harry Warren’s “An Affair To Remember.” I’ve remarked on these pages before about the magical effect Malone has on a ballad. He explores the choral aspects of the guitar, circling around to the melody and then back out, like a stream meandering around a bend before finding its main current.
Kurt Elling returned, and this time the trio alignment was Malone and bassist Kitagowa, for the Horace Silver/Jon Hendricks tune “Home Cookin’.” They had performed this at Monterey, but now it highlighted the teamwork between the players. They brought home the tune’s sense of humor, both in Elling’s delightful reading and Malone’s nuanced accompaniment.
The first set ended with Kenny Barron’s catchy “Calypso,” another number they performed last September and honed over for months on tour. Regina Carter started out with some staccato riffs, matched by Russell Malone, but it was Kenny Barron taking over on his Caribbean composition, and Johnathan Blake demanding recognition with the first of his startling drum solos.
Kurt Elling brought the group back after intermission with “And We Will Fly,” an Alan Pasqua composition from his Night Moves CD. It had a light, samba-like feel to it, and was delightful in this version, with Russell Malone and Regina Carter adding dimension. Elling, the de facto leader of this group, then introduced the opening line of Thelonious Monk’s “Rhythm-N-Ing,” and the group took off on its most impressive jazz exploration of the night. Elling, fresh off his Grammy, is at the point of his career where he seems to be able to seize the audience almost at will. He then handed the baton to Carter, who let it all hang out with an extended solo that ranged from a quote of “Lady Be Good” to “Ding Dong, the Witch is Dead.” Malone followed, showing off his bluesy side, and Barron did his best to one-up him, the group smoking through this entire piece. Finally, Kitagowa and Blake had an extended interlude, with Blake providing some terrific brush and stick work.
Having shown off one side of her virtuosity, Carter turned to her gospel roots, teaming up with Barron in a stirring duet of “Georgia On My Mind.” Though she hails from Detroit and Barron from Philly, you wouldn’t know it from this achingly beautiful rendition of a tune most associated with Ray Charles.
The group finished with two numbers that had them all involved, another outstanding Barron theme from an unnamed movie, and the familiar “Nature Boy,” which had the audience on its feet through terrific riffs by everyone, and another knockout Blake drum solo. It will be sad to see this tour come to an end, and here’s hoping that MJF Records will be releasing some of their material on CD in the near future.
To read more posts by Michael Katz click here.
By Roger Crane
Labels. So often they are more problematic than helpful. The distinction between a cabaret singer and a jazz singer is a case in point. It is true that some jazz singers ignore the text and use lyrics as simply a vehicle to hang their considerable “chops” upon. It is also true that some cabaret performers treat lyrics as if gold plated and sound as if they are mentally counting beats. But the best singers can and often do keep a foot in both camps. They relax with a beat and swing a little but they also phrase well and “tell the story.”
Although some writers who love to pigeonhole have put vocalist Marlene VerPlanck into a box labeled “cabaret,” her jazz roots are very evident. In fact, in her very first recording, the 1955 Savoy LP titled With Every Breath I Take, she worked most comfortably with Hank Jones, Joe Wilder, Wendell Marshall and Kenny Clarke, four superior jazz artists. You can judge a singer by the accompanists she keeps and, as you browse through her more recent recordings, you will recognize such jazz stalwarts as Hank Jones, Bucky Pizzarelli, Billy Taylor and her husband, arranger and composer Billy VerPlanck.
The New Jersey-based Marlene VerPlanck made a recent, rare and long overdue swing through the southern California area. I caught her at two of her four venues: the Crowne Plaza Hotel near LAX and Sangria on the Hermosa Beach pier. At both, she worked with pianist Ed Vodicka, bassist Kirk Smith and drummer Enzo Todesco. Those of you who know Marlene know not to expect nostalgic renderings of over-familiar songs. She comes up with fresh approaches to the most well-known, as well as digging deeper into the songbooks of the greats than do most vocalists.
For example, her selections at both venues ran the gamut from beloved standards such as Irving Berlin’s “Be Careful, It’s My Heart” and Rodgers and Hart’s “Falling in Love With Love” to “They Say It’s Spring,” a well-composed Bob Haymes song that is not a standard but should be. In typical VerPlanck fashion, she included a few unheralded songs such as a flirty tune titled “Don’t Fall in Love Without Me.” As far as I know, Marlene is the only singer, other than Tony Bennett to sing Charles de Forest’s exquisite story-song, “Where Do You Go From Love.” But, whether it was a well-known standard or a rarely heard gem, Vodicka and band handled Billy VerPlanck’s charts with ease and were in lockstep with Marlene throughout the evening, always enhancing, never intruding on her performance.
Three sparkling ingredients were evident at both of her venues. One of these was the singer, the poised, direct and charming Marlene, with voice strong and clear and filled with both power and nuance. Marlene showed us that it is possible to add jazz influences to cabaret singing without violating either genre. (Or, perhaps more correctly, she added cabaret influences to jazz singing.) The second ingredient was the selection of songs and the third, her absolutely Rolls Royce trio, who could give lessons in how to accompany a singer. Marlene VerPlanck was born to sing and her music comes straight from the heart – without any detours. She is best known for Manhattan, supper clubs, studio work and her Audiophile recordings. But, let us all hope that she returns more often to our coast.
By the way, Marlene has at least 20 CDs available. If none are part of your jazz library, then there is a significant gap in your knowledge and appreciation of vocalists. For details, check her Discography here.
By Don Heckman
Strunz and Farah have been around for so long that it can be easy to take them for granted. The two-guitar partnership of Costa Rican-born Jorge Strunz and Iranian native Ardeshir Farah reaches back to their first CD, Mosaico, released in 1980. And their three-decade musical relationship (lasting longer than many marriages) has positioned them as one of the original, as well as one of the continually prominent ensembles, in the World Music genre.
The reasons for that remarkable career longevity were on full display in their performance at Vibrato Grill Jazz…etc. on Tuesday night. There was, first of all, the utterly symbiotic relationship between their guitars. Both affirmed their virtuosic skills, tossing off incredibly rapid-fire melodic lines with almost casual ease. Their compositional offerings ranged confidently from Latin American dance beats and new flamenco to Middle Eastern rhythms and scales, with occasional glances in the direction of klezmer.
Every note was ably supported by the stellar playing of flutist/clarinetist Rob Hardt, bassist Carlitos del Puerto and percussionist Jimmy Branly.
Highlights came one after the other. Strunz generally claimed a somewhat larger share of the spotlight, ripping through one solo after another with finger-burning speed. Despite the amazing rapidity, however, his improvising always offered even more, via melodic phrasing and driving rhythms. Farah’s solos were equally dynamic, and his enthusiastic presence, constantly interacting with the other players, helped spark the evening’s musical pyrotechnics.
In a new piece titled “Rattle Tattle,” clarinetist Hardt – a vital participant throughout the evening – stepped forward with a stunning solo, power-mixing elements of Eastern European klezmer with propulsive jazz phrasing. Another work, “Caspian Night,” showcased Hardt’s flute in an evocative Middle Eastern setting. Regardless of the musical orientation, Branly – playing cajon, bongos and cymbals in smiling, high-spirited fashion – joined with the always dependable, driving bass of del Puerto to keep the music firmly on track.
There have been times in the past when Vibrato’s audiences have been more attentive to the venue’s fine cuisine and their own socializing than to the music. But not so on this night. Strunz, Farah and their players fully claimed the responsiveness of the full house crowd. And with good cause. Thirty years together have only enhanced the musical appeal of this insistently creative duo.
Photos by Faith Frenz
By Don Heckman
Pat Metheny’s Orchestrion tour arrived at Disney Hall Monday night. And one couldn’t have asked for a more amiable setting than Frank Gehry’s architecturally unique performance space. The stage was filled with the Orchestrion’s clusters and stacks of instruments – from a grand piano, marimbas and acoustic guitars to cymbals, percussion and bottle organs – their visual impact enhanced by the dramatic overhead presence of Disney’s seemingly scattered organ pipes.
The dozens of sound-producing entities – driven by various solenoids and valves, controlled by computer sequencing as well as real-time triggering – represent the latest, and far and away the most expansive, manifestation of Metheny’s continuing enhancement of his creative musical palette. Triggered by his fascination with his grandfather’s player piano, the Orchestrion is a contemporary version of the wide variety of mechanical instruments that came into popularity around the beginning of the 20th century. But, although similar in the sense that it consists of physical, sound-producing devices, it is fundamentally different in that the sounds produced by each of those devices is the product of human hands – Metheny’s.
The actual participation of the Orchestrion in the program took several numbers to arrive. Metheny began with a few solo pieces, switching to his 42-string Pikasso guitar for one, perhaps intending its sweeps and glissandos of sound to serve as a kind of transition. But, even so, his initial interaction with the Orchestrion was relatively modest, involving a back-beat from a pair of finger cymbals and his solo guitar version of “Unity Village,” from his first album.
When the full panoply of sounds kicked in, accompanied by flashing lights and the visual images of hammers striking and keys depressing, the effect was dramatic enough to generate a roar of approval from the crowd. And, over the course of the five movements of the “Orchestrion Suite,” the combination of Metheny’s guitar and his lush, far-ranging composition thoroughly affirmed the physical, financial and creative efforts he has put into the project.
More problematically, however, the implicit limitations of the Orchestrion – the pre-set sequencing, the fact that all the sounds are the product of single person – made for an absence of spontaneity that was underscored when Metheny was joined for a guitar duet segment with Brazilian guitarist Romero Lubambo. Performing Jobim’s “Insensatez” together, one immediately sensed a feeling of rhythmic lift – call it “swing” – that never quite seemed to surface in the Orchestrion’s passages.
Nonetheless, viewing the project from the perspective of Metheny’s desire to create a live musical entity in which every element is the product of his own imagination, the performance had to be considered a success. The music, of course, is always what matters. At its best, the “Suite,” with Metheny’s always compelling guitar soaring freely in and out of the Orchestrion’s multi-leveled textures, was a work reaching beyond the limits of genre. And perhaps even more interestingly, a work with the potential to reach beyond the framework of the Orchestrion.