Oct. 13 2010 12:00 AM

Guitar virtuoso Pat Metheny extends his reach


There’s a good reason
Pat Metheny will lug hundreds of pounds of acoustic instruments and
state-of-the-art gadgetry to MSU’s Wharton Center Friday.

going back to the basics.

Metheny, a lifelong plugger-in of exotic
guitar enhancements, has turned his hankering for tinkering to
acoustic ends.

“I’m Mr. Electricity, right? I’m this guitar player and
all that,” Metheny said in a phone interview. “But actually, what I
really like to do is play acoustic guitar.”

thing all along, as a guitar player, has been, how can I generate more
acoustic sound and still have a guitar in my hand?”

The answer is
Orchestrion, a Janus of a contraption that looks to the past and future
at once.

Using unseen foot pedals, solenoids and pneumatic controls, Metheny can augment his guitar with a battery of supporting instruments, from vibes to marimba to drums to cymbals, glockenspiel, tuned bottles and much more, all played in real time.

Orchestrion is a throwback to forgotten musical machines of the 19th century, elaborate organs bristling with bells, whistles, horns and whatnot.

Assembled on stage, the battery of instruments is a wild sight.

“The most jaded, cynical person cannot walk in a room with this stuff and not start laughing,” Metheny said.

But he quickly added that the novelty factor only lasts “10 or 15 minutes.”

“After that, the music better be happenin’,” he said.

Metheny worked for months on the “Orchestrion Suite,” centerpiece of his latest CD and the current tour, producing 300 pages of written music.

Musically, it’s not a radical shift. The euphoric chords, hypnotic rhythms and bluesy interludes are pure Metheny, only with a richer, more colorful weave.

“This is a real close, deep look, maybe the most personal expression of exactly what I’m hearing in my head, because I can get to all those sounds,” he said.

A year into the Orchestrion tour, some people look at all that apparatus and con- clude that that Metheny is flexing his ego, or he’s too cheap to hire sidemen.

“The questions I get,” he said. “Don’t you get lonely up there? How is this different from playing with real musicians? That’s a … .”

He stopped before saying “dumb one.”

“That all misses the point,” he declared, settling on higher ground. “It’s a solo concert. You wouldn’t ask Keith [Jarrett], ‘Gee, don’t you get lonely up there? What about the interaction with other musicians?’” When Metheny was a youngster, he was fascinated by the player piano in his grandfather’s basement. That planted the seed.

After a long gestation, Orchestrion emerged a year ago, as an unlikely end run around the frustrations of modern technology.

Computers are a great tool, Metheny said, but the user interface — that ubiquitous screen — “sucks.”

“Like so many of us, I spend hours of my day sitting in front of a computer screen for one reason or another, or having a cell phone in my hand,” Metheny said. “I don’t know about you, but I’m sick of that.”

Metheny is just as frustrated with music-making technology. He likes the variety of sounds he can get out of electric guitars, guitar synthesizers, and other gadgets, but finds the listener interface — the speaker — limiting.

“I love the control aspect, I love the color aspect, but in the end, it’s going to come out of your speakers,” he said. “To me, acoustic sound is infinitely more complex than that.”

It’s a weird thrill to hear (and see) unhanded mallets double Metheny’s gossamer guitar lines on vibraphone, adding the flavor of Metheny’s former teacher and frequent bandmate, Gary Burton.

Far from feeling slighted, Burton is a big Orchestrion supporter.

“There’s 37 Gary Burton vibe mallets on the vibes,” Metheny said. “He personally picked out all the marimba mallets and got them to me. He’s completely enthusiastic about the whole thing.” But Metheny admitted his fellow musicians have reacted differently to the project.

“Most of my contemporaries know I’m slightly off somehow, anyway,” he said. “They probably have a wide range of opinions about that.”

General reaction to Orchestrion has ranged from “summit of his genius” to “he had to get it out of his system.”

But if there’s one constant to Metheny’s career, it’s that Pat Metheny does what he wants.

“I’ve never been able to be swayed too much by audiences, critics, record companies, girlfriends or whatever,” he said. “I have a very strong sense of what I like. That’s enough for me.”

Pat Metheny: The Orchestrion Wharton Center

Cobb Great Hall 7 p.m. Sunday, $35-65 (800) WHARTON