[3 February 2011]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
If you go to his Wikipedia page, you’ll notice that guitarist Trey Gunn’s collaborations outnumber his solo albums. Much like his former co-workers within King Crimson, Gunn is becoming the next go-to guy when progressive musicians need an uncommon six-string approach. I’ll Tell What I Saw allocates the highlights of these guest spots as well as selections from Gunn’s own solo discography. So if you only know of Gunn by way of his contributions to Thrak and The Power to Believe, you’re in for a treat.
Trey Gunn’s guitar sounds thrive partly because of his use of fretless and “touch” guitars. This gives me free license to bat around words like “prog,” “innovative,” and “pioneer,” but I doubt whether such Crimson-y buzz words can truly convey just how broad and impressive I’ll Tell What I Saw is. Sure, in the wrong frame of mind, these 36 tracks clocking in at 2 hours and 20 minutes can be trying in a single sitting. Some tracks are more accessible than others, but most of them are not that easy to swallow. But hey, these warnings betray the nature of an avant-prog double album. Of course it’s a thick program, you wouldn’t expect anything less. And it’s all the better for it, if you ask me.
If you asked Gunn himself, he would probably attribute the overall high quality of the music to the stylistic diversity. “I’m often surprised at the fresh kind of playing I do on other people’s records. Somehow they pull things out of me that I can’t always get myself.” This only makes sense when these other people are the likes of the Italian group N.Y.X., skin man Matt Chamberlain, Russian singer Inna Zhelannaya, and clarinetist Sergey Klevensky. Naturally, they would bring the best out of an already accomplished guitarist. And what makes his contributions to the songs of others so great is the lack of showmanship. Like on Zhelannaya’s “Drunk,” Gunn’s aggressive sounds function more as background and mood than some kind of raving lead. Klevensk’s lovely quasi-classical composition “Morning Dream” hardly needs a guitar, but Trey Gunn’s show of restraint does so much more to provide a big clear sky over the rest of the instruments. As proficient as his chops are, he always remains in service to the song. In this case, all freaking 36 of them.
This isn’t to say that the things from Gunn’s own solo albums don’t pull their weight. He’s as challenging on his own as when he’s playing beside Fripp and Belew. The one-two punch that greets you on “Hymn” and “The Joy of Molybdenum” in particular packs quite the hyperkinetic pounce. By the time “The Fifth Spin of the Sun” kicks into full gear, it’s like King’s X CDs are raining from the sky (That’s a compliment, by the way). Just be prepared to find the collaborative tracks more memorable on the first listen. After that, who knows what will happen.
This album is definitely worth the trouble. It was worth the trouble to compile, master, and lay out on part of the producers and distributors and more than worth 17 years of musical labor from the man of the hour. Trey Gunn is the real deal and I’ll Tell What I Saw is the thrill-ride route to play catch-up.