Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Trey Gunn - 2010 "Modulator"

Modulator is Trey Gunn with uber-drummer Marco Minnemann; but with a gigantic twist. This entire recording was composed and produced over the top of a 51 minute, live drum solo by Marco.
For this project, alternatively known as "Normalizer Two", Marco has enlisted several different musicians to create a full cd, each, from the same drum solo. No editing of the drum performance was done. All the music had to fit with what Marco played and, ideally, make it seems like only this drum performance could go with this music.
"This was the hardest recording I have ever taken on," says Gunn. "The challenges of this process prove the old adage that 'with great restrictions come great creative leaps'."

Trey Gunn has a name reminiscent of an Old West outlaw. He is also one of current progressive rock’s go-to soundmakers, mainly wielding his Warr guitar (a Chapman Stick-like instrument built to explore notes from bass to guitar range with a tapping technique), touring and performing with the likes of Tool, Brian Eno, and, most famously, prog giants King Crimson, of which he was a member for nine years and four studio albums.
On Modulator, the music is a thick, weird, pulverizing, battlefield of touch guitars, spacy sound effects, and free jazz drumming. The concept is even weirder—for Modulator, the writing took place backwards, with Gunn writing and overdubbing soundscapes and riffs on top of “rhythmic illusionist” Marco Minnemann’s 51-minute drum solo, recorded live in Senden, Germany in 2006. Gunn spent years toying with the material, literally re-thinking the process of songwriting before finally settling on an appropriate method of deconstruction: 22 tracks of controlled chaos.
Modulator won’t win over any doubters. If your idea of proggy experimentation is “that Coheed album with all the sound effects”, this ain’t gonna float your boat. But if you’re up for the challenge, Gunn, Minnemann, and Modulator offer a headphone-absorbing headfuck that only gets better the closer you listen. If the idea behind “progressive rock” is to literally “progress” rock music beyond its normal confines, exploring the limits and possibilities of what the genre is capable of, then Modulator is one of the most progressive (and interesting) things you’re likely to hear this year…or any.

Fusion and electric avant-garde jazz are two different things. Fusion--as envisioned by Miles Davis, John McLaughlin, Chick Corea, and others back in the '70s -- combined jazz with rock and funk in a way that didn't emphasize outside playing, whereas electric avant-garde jazz (as in Ornette Coleman's Prime Time, Jamaaladeen Tacuma, Ronald Shannon Jackson, and James Blood Ulmer) savors the dissonant pleasures of the outside. But there are times when the two merge, and that is what happens on guitarist Trey Gunn and drummer Marco Minnemann's Modulator. Actually, this instrumental CD is more than a combination of fusion and electric avant-garde jazz; it is a combination of fusion, electric avant-garde jazz, and progressive rock. And Gunn and Minnemann end up sounding like a freewheeling yet coherent "duo," which is interesting in light of how Modulator was put together. Gunn and Minnemann didn't enter the studio at the same time and record as a traditional duo. Instead, an unaccompanied Minnemann recorded a 50-minute drum solo by himself in 2006, gave the recording to Gunn and asked him to compose music for his drumming. Gunn was reluctant at first, but after agreeing to take on the difficult project, he composed some music -- and from 2008-2010, he played various instruments (including guitar, bass, and keyboards) and combined them with Minnemann's drums. Of course, there are those who will argue that recording an album that way has no place in jazz -- that jazz is about real musicians playing together in real time, not musicians playing separately and later mixing it all together. But then, Modulator never pretends to be straight-ahead jazz; this is a hybrid mixture of fusion, electric avant-garde jazz, and prog rock. And as abstract and eccentric as Modulator is at times, the music is also logical; it's clear that Gunn put a lot of thought into what he added to Minnemann's drums. Music this challenging isn't for everyone, but Modulator is well worth exploring if one is the type of broad-minded, eclectic listener who appreciates electric Miles Davis and Coleman's Prime Time as much as he/she appreciates King Crimson

Some concepts look grand on paper, but don’t execute well. Some ideas are great in concept, but fail to launch in practice. Trey Gunn‘s Modulator is a project that succeeds on both counts.
The former King Crimson guitarist approached the making of this album in a unique manner. First, he enlisted the aid of drummer Marco Minnemann. The percussionist set up his kit and recorded a one-hour drum solo. No stopping, one take. I kid you not. Then Gunn took that recording and proceeded to write music to play atop the drum parts. Gunn broke the solo into twenty-two sections, but other than that, did no chopping, channeling or editing. In a Seattle studio more than two years after Minnemann laid down his solo in Germany, Gunn added guitars, basses, keyboards and samples. Save some Uilleann pipes and fiddle on a bit of cacophony called “Spectra,” the recording is only Minnemann and Gunn.

But how does it sound? Modulator is surprisingly accessible and organic. The pieces don’t jump out at the listener all full of hooks, but they’re not cold, remote exercises, either. There’s a constant and welcome juxtaposition between the percussion and the other instrumentation: sometimes when the drums are simple, the other instruments head toward angular, complex territory. When the drums get all complicated, the instruments sometimes traverse smoother sonic regions.

Some sections of Modulator — though it’s broken into tracks, it’s best approached as a single composition with movements — are quite melodic, while others are static and nearly devoid of melody. Both approaches, work set as they are against each other. In a very real sense, even though the music was carefully constructed, most of Modulator feels (and sounds) more like a series of high-level improvisations. One could imagine achieving a similar result (assuming one has players of this caliber) if, say, hours and hours of improvisations were recorded over the period of months. Then an intrepid producer could comb over the tapes, select the best bits and edit them together to create a rewarding finished product.

Alas, that’s not what happened here. Such a course, apparently, would have been too easy, too lacking in challenge. Artists like this are sometimes willing to take chances — because, in the end there was no guarantee that a project like this would yield listenable, enduring music — and adventurous listeners are all the better for having heard it. And if all this weren’t enough, no less than five other musicians — including Mike Keneally — are each planning to take individual cracks at layering their compositions atop Minnemann’s solo. Yikes.

Tracks Listing

1. Contact
2. Flood
3. Spray I
4. Fall Time +/-
5. Fall Time -/+
6. Lumen
7. Switch
8. Daughter
9. Pole
10. Scatter
11. Up Spin
12. Down Spin
13. Spectra
14. Superstish-a-tron
15. Californ-a-tron
16. Spray II
17. Mono-Punkte
18. Coupling
19. Incantation
20. Slingcharm
21. Twisted Pair
22. Hymn

Line-up / Musicians

Marco Minnemann (drums);
Trey Gunn (guitar, fretless guitar, keyboards, sampler);
Michael Connolly (Uilleann pipe)