US jazz supremo Metheny re-invents one-man band in France

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The Independent Culture

US jazz guitar legend Pat Metheny chose a small town in northwestern France to launch his new world tour with his latest project, a one-man automated orchestra.

The 55-year-old jazz supremo and winner of 17 Grammy Awards is returning to stages with his "Orchestrion" machine, complete with piano, a full-rythm section, robot guitars and pipe organs made from water bottles.

"I've never been so scared in my entire life. Even I think I'm crazy," Metheny told AFP at the weekend ahead of the opening concert in Coutances, a rural town of 10,000 people in France's Normandy region.

The town has gained some prominence as the venue for one of France's leading jazz festivals "Jazz sous les Pommiers" (Jazz under the apple trees), which last year attracted 65,000 visitors. Methany, who has a French wife, has performed here before.

"I've always had good experiences here," he told AFP, and "didn't want to start the tour in Paris as I'm sure I'm going to be learning a lot in the first bunch of gigs."

On stage, the Orchestrion looks like something out of a 19th-century science fiction novel by H.G. Wells or Jules Verne.

Covering the width of the stage, the contraption is dominated by a dismembered drum kit, each drum, cymbal or tom individually suspended in its own custom-built box.

There are two sets of 'guitar-bots' that look like mini-missile launchers, a grand piano and two strange organ-like instruments made of water-filled bottles played by compressed air.

Metheny controls all of this with his guitar and a set of foot pedals.

"The idea of an instrument like this, capable of playing just about anything mechanically, was totally mind-blowing," said Metheny, who in the last 30 years has played at many of the world's top venues and colloborated with some of the best known names in modern music including David Bowie, Steve Reich, Herbie Hancock, Jim Hall and Milton Nascimento.

The automated orchestra was designed by Metheny and built by a team of expert instrument makers in the United States.

But Metheny has long cultivated an interest in automatic instruments.

As a child at his grandparents' house, he would spend hours with an old 'player piano', with paper rolls of music, of the type made famous in countless cowboy films.

Metheny's Orchestrion builds on its historical predecessors from the late 19th and early 20th centuries by using modern technology to allow the guitarist to play all of the various instruments live on stage.

"This is a 21st-century front end with a 19th century back end," Metheny told the audience during a break in his nearly two and a half hour concert at the weekend.

"It's complicated," he added. "I could either say nothing more or speak for 3 hours."

The Orchestrion tour will take Metheny and his amazing machine to venues across Europe over the next two months, including Paris, London, Amsterdam and Rome. He returns to the United States in April.

If reactions to the opening night are anything to go by the jury is still out over the musical merits of the project.

"I found it very dehumanising. His music is better with real musicians," said 60-year-old Claire.

Ugo, a 17-year-old student, was won over.

"I thought it was super. Really good, really interesting," he said.

One thing the tour will enable Metheny to do is vary his traditional concert-closing "thank you and good night" speech.

"Normally I'd say thank you on behalf on my musicians. In this case, thank you for coming," he said to a standing ovation.