Gunnelpumpers: Tritonium
Spiritflake Music

Gunnelpumpers' Tritonium certainly boasts its fair share of selling points: founded in 2002, the Chicago-based sextet features no less than three bass players—electric bassist Tom Mendel, double bassist Michael Hovnanian, and Clevinger bassist Douglas Johnson—and is probably the only known musical outfit that can say its latest release involves the contributions of both a member of the Chicago Symphony and an aerospace engineer. None of that would matter much, of course, if the music on the recording weren't compelling in its own right, but the group needn't worry a whole lot in that regard. Listeners with a jones for free-wheeling improv with ties to prog-rock and free jazz will find much to like about the three-track, forty-minute outing. And the group name? Gunnelpumping is apparently—and I quote—“the act of standing on the rear gunnels of a canoe and propelling the craft forward by pumping one's legs.”

Recorded live at the Elbo Room in Chicago on October 19th, 2010, the material captured on the recording is completely improvised, from the scene-setting “Sir Cirrus” to the regrettably titled “McGroover,” which weighs in at a heavy twenty minutes. The six musicians—the aforementioned three plus electric guitarist John Meyer, percussionist Randy Farr, and drummer Bob Garrett—conjure a thick collective brew out of which a singular voice occasionally rises. Farr and Garrett hold down a solid bottom end that gives other elements ample room to maneuver, whether it be a funk bass line, bowed string flourish, or guitar snarl. It's a sprawling cauldron of black sound, no matter which way you cut it, and those in attendance on that October evening must have felt at times as if the wallpaper was peeling off the club walls before their very eyes.

There are moments on the group's third album—Tritonium was preceded by the 2010 full-lengths the nth wave and Symphonie Improvise—where echoes of King Crimson surface, specifically in bass playing that sometimes calls Tony Levin to mind and in playing that sometimes hints at a Robert Fripp influence (most noticeably in what appears to be an electric guitar solo near the end of “Eschatonus” but which is, in fact, the sound of Johnson's bowed six-string Clevinger bass). Imagine, then, an improv-oriented mashup of Miles Davis's Live-Evil and King Crimson's Red and you'll have a pretty good idea of what to expect. If there's one thing that might attract more listeners to Gunnelpumpers' music, it would be a move away from pure improvisation—even if it is the band's raison d'être—and towards a more formal composition-based approach, something for which Red and, to a lesser degree, Live-Evil turn out to be pretty good models. Word has it that Gunnelpumpers already has its fourth album, Montana Fix, scheduled for a December 2012 release, so it'll be interesting to hear what direction that purportedly ninteen-song set takes.

June 2012