Philadelphia Orchestra Percussionist Turns Metheny Music into Concerto

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Percussionist Christopher Deviney arranged three pieces from the 1997 album Pat Metheny album Imaginary Day for the Philadelphia Orchestra. (Photo: Courtesy Philadelphia Orchestra)

Whether through the use of layered synths or the one-man symphony of his mechanical Orchestrion, Pat Metheny has long strived to achieve orchestral colors within the smaller context of a jazz ensemble. As March turned to April this year, the Philadelphia Orchestra scaled up Metheny’s orchestral ideas into a full concerto under the baton of British conductor Bramwell Tovey.

The project was the brainchild of Christopher Deviney, the Orchestra’s principal percussionist since 2003 and a self-professed lifelong Metheny fan. He’s called Metheny and his longtime former keyboardist and composing partner Lyle Mays the “most important duo to come along since George and Ira Gershwin.”

For his duo concerto, which Deviney performed on vibraphone and MalletKAT alongside She-e Wu on marimba, Deviney arranged three pieces from Metheny’s 1997 album Imaginary Day: “The Awakening,” “Across the Sky,” and “The Heat of the Day.”  The piece had its long-awaited world premiere on a program called “Pat Metheny and the American Beat,” which it shared with Stateside compositons by Leonard Bernstein and Antonín Dvořák.

Deviney shared his story a few days after the premiere from the Orchestra’s headquarters at Philly’s Kimmel Center.

What inspired you to arrange Pat Metheny’s music for the orchestra?

A friend of mine introduced me to Pat’s music back in high school, when percussionist Naná Vasconcelos, drummer Danny Gottlieb and Lyle Mays were with him. At the time they were one of the few instrumentalist bands putting out music that really sounded original and different from anyone else and that wasn’t a rock band. I became a lifelong fan. I had a theory that there are people that wouldn’t normally attend concerts at the Kimmel Center but are Pat Metheny fans, and there are also people who regularly attend concerts at the Kimmel Center who might not be familiar with Pat Metheny’s music, but that those two audiences have more in common with each other than they think they do.

Maybe 10 years ago I made my way backstage after a concert and told Pat that I had the idea of taking three tunes for a traditional concerto format—fast-slow-fast. He asked me which tunes, I told him, and he thought for a second and said, “Yeah, I think those would work well.” So I had his blessing to pursue this.

Why did you think these three pieces from Imaginary Day would be a good fit for an orchestral interpretation?

I remember listening to the album when it first came out and these three in particular struck me as very orchestral in nature. The added synth layers that Pat and Lyle Mays chose often sounded like a full string section, but sometimes they were brass-like and there’s a lot of woodwind synth sounds.

I sit on stage with a 100-piece orchestra most days, and to me it seemed like this would translate well. I basically took those layers and divided them up into individual acoustic parts that I felt worked for each of the different sections of the orchestra.

In the originals, there is a combination of composition and improvisation. How did you approach the solos, which only existed in that form on the day of the recording?

I’m not a prolific improviser so I basically transcribed everything I heard, trying to remain close, exact and true to the recordings. So when it would get to a Lyle Mays piano solo, I was often literally giving his left hand to one instrument and his right hand to another instrument. When it came to Pat’s guitar solo in the third movement, I gave that to myself because I wanted the opportunity to try to get as close to Pat’s signature guitar synth sound as I could.

I utilized a MIDI controller called a MalletKAT and a sound source called Reason, combining those two to try to approximate his sound. That was my homage to Pat. I felt that anybody who was familiar with his music would probably smile at that point, like “Yeah, that’s kinda close.”

Was it a challenge to get the piece performed? The Orchestra has undergone quite a few changes in the last several years, with music director Christoph Eschenbach leaving and eventually being replaced by Yannick Nézet-Séguin.

I was the subject of some hard timing. There’s a pipeline that happens with projects like this, and mine was at the tail end of that pipeline and essentially got cut off because [Eschenbach] wasn’t going to be around as long as he had anticipated when he originally green-lighted the project. So then the hunt became about finding a conductor who would want to take it on.

[During the search for a new music director] the conductors that come in are essentially auditioning, so they don’t want to touch a piece like mine because it’s a wild card. It could be great, but it could be disastrous, so they just don’t want to take the chance. It took a long time before somebody said yes, let’s try it, and that person was Bramwell Tovey.

Do you feel like the relationship between classical and jazz is changing? Are the two genres combining more often than they used to from your perspective?

That’s a really good question and I don’t know if I have a great answer for it. To me it seems like the term jazz is becoming harder and harder to define. I think jazz has evolved into so many different versions and offshoots that to me it seems impossible to take, for instance, Pat Metheny’s music and call it “jazz.”

If having an improvisational factor is what jazz is, well then yeah, it’s jazz. But I think the term “jazz” means different things to different people and Metheny, maybe more than a lot of artists, has always been searching for ways to express his music in different forms. Every recording he puts out, there’s going to be some attempt to do something different. Not a lot of artists have that kind of versatility, and I’ve always respected that. DB

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