In the act of playing with one another in a live setting, musicians are intuitively caught in a constant interplay of complex actions and reactions. They dialogically feed off of one another. It is the goal of every jazz improviser to engage in this sort of complex dialogue in a way that seems effortless, belying the countless hours of practice that are required to attain this natural demeanor. Along the way, it is not uncommon for young improvisers to use “play-along” tracks, which usually rhythm sections playing changes for the student to shred over. Although this does save the improviser from subjecting other players to his or her learning process, practice tracks present a problem in jazz pedagogy in that they are often musically neutral. They are frozen and repeatable sonic objects that place no demands on the player to react.
Trey Gunn’s Modulator tackles this issue head-on by taming a particularly unruly sonic object: a 50 minute drum solo by Marco Minneman (titled Normalizer). It was Gunn’s task to write a composition based on the solo with the stipulation that the solo itself not be altered. It would seem that a musician who navigated some of King Crimson’s most technically demanding music should have no trouble with such a project, but in interviews surrounding its release, Gunn reported that creating Modulator was a very difficult conceptual process.
The difficulty arose because he shunned the idea of releasing an album’s worth merely of “playing along” with Minneman’s solo. He intended to create the perception that Modulator was dialogic: two subjects interacting rather than one subject reacting to a fixed object. To accomplish this, Gunn took on the responsibility of crafting ideas that could, conceivably, produce the reaction that was already formed on the recorded solo. Other times, he takes the back seat to Minneman’s contributions and reacts accordingly. This process took quite a bit of trial, error, and rewrites, but the end result is impressive and challenging.
Modulator is a heavy-duty listen that requires some concentration, but Gunn’s overall musical approach appeals to me so strongly that I had trouble taking it out of the player last summer. Sometimes, when an album is used as a “soundtrack to life” it becomes closely associated with a specific time and place, and returning to that favorite album from six months or a year before can be disappointing. Modulator seems to have escaped this vortex. It did not really bring back last summer as viscerally as I feared it might. In truth, it almost felt like the first time I was listening to it, although this time I had a pretty good understanding of the content of the album. I did not, however, think back on how great that summer was or what I was doing as I was listening to Modulator at any given time. Instead, I am still floored by its overall complexity and conceptual density.
As I have been revisiting Modulator, I wonder what might have to happen to get it onstage in a live setting. I think it would probably lose something in translation if it were memorized and performed note-for-note. I see it as possible, though, as long as Minneman and Gunn interacted relatively freely within the rather tight boundaries of the final composition. The problem would be the esoteric third person covering Gunn’s secondary parts. Training a musician who was not initially involved in Modulator’s creative process to contribute equally in such a setting might be asking a bit much.
This just in – I’m going to go check out Gunn and Pat Mastelotto as TU tonight at the One World theater. It’ll be a freakshow, for sure.