Metheny’s jazz-fusion amazes

I’m quite certain that the first thing you are asking yourself is “Who is Pat Metheny?” Though my own age dwarfs the majority of the people here, even I knew little about him, save for his renown as a jazz fusion guitarist. I can already imagine the rolling of eyes as they scan this page, and with good reason. Most jazz fusion guitarists evoke the image of an older white gentleman, with hair that only a musician can get away with. If you were to look at Pat Metheny, you would likely have guessed his profession, for he has an amazing head of hair that can only be adequately compared to a lion’s mane. However, you are likely not interested in Pat Metheny’s hair, so let us continue.

In the interest of full disclosure, I only attended this show due to the fierce fandom of my friend. I can safely say that I had no idea what to expect, besides hearing some chops that a guitar magazine might describe as “hot-buttery smooth.” Walking into the Ferst Center, I was not disappointed, for Metheny had already begun, playing solo on a red curtained area that was much smaller than the Ferst stage affords. It was intimate and tasteful, and it nearly put me to sleep. Earlier my friend had said “Good luck!” when I told him I was going to be writing a review of this show, and those words now rang in my head, mocking my hubris.

Then the tiny Chinese cymbals to Metheny’s right began to play in a looped rhythm. Only a single white LED denoted when the cymbals were to be triggered, as they were completely automated. “I suppose he needs a way to keep time,” I thought.

Metheny must have heard my thoughts, for he is a jazz fusion guitarist, capable of much greater feats of creative mastery that I can only hope to guess. It was at this point that he flipped his hair up and regarded us in the audience with a small smirk as the red curtained area around him began to rise, revealing a veritable army of robotically controlled instruments. The drums rose high above him in a grid, each in its own separate box, as robotic sticks hit each cymbal and drum. The xylophone and vibraphone were playing themselves, as was a piano.

It was like the Music Technology department’s collective dreams somehow found their way into the Ferst Center and were projected onto the stage.

But wait, there is more. Not only were conventional instruments being controlled, but instruments that would be physically impossible for a human to play were also on display. Imagine about 50 glass jugs, all filled with water just enough to achieve an acceptable musical pitch, with an individual vent for each jug blowing across the mouth in perfect time with the music. Imagine eight individual strings with only the smallest of aluminum surrounding them, with a small slide moving up and down each extremely quickly to produce a variety of tones, which then would shake back and forth due to the force of speed, meaning the instruments were literally swaying in time with the music.

Metheny could not help himself. He grinned at our collective awe at what he dubbed his Orchestrion, and then proceeded to not only use these instruments as backing tracks, but then started to play them using his MIDI-enabled guitar in real time. Not only had he built all of this stuff, he was fully in control of it all, whenever he chose. It was like seeing Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory on stage, if the candy making machines had been replaced with musical instruments.

And then something even more miraculous happened. I began to understand Metheny’s music. It was equivalent to learning a foreign language and then having your first thought solely in that language. It was an unexpected epiphany, largely enabled by one particular track where Metheny improvised parts and laid them down in loops, one after the other, starting first with the guitar and then moving on to every single instrument on stage (including the drums)!

Even if I had not been inducted into the secret Metheny circle at that point, it would have still remained a technical tour de force, a geek thrill that was perfectly appropriate for Tech’s campus. Metheny even acknowledged this himself on stage, saying that in other places he was often asked why he had chosen to build all of these instruments, but at Tech there was no need for such a question.

The building of these instruments was a wonderful technical achievement, but it would have meant nothing without capable musicianship to back it up. Pat Metheny managed this, and made it look absolutely effortless.