Despite a career that now goes back over three decades, the relative infrequency of releases from guitarist and sound sculptor David Torn renders any new one, at the very least, a cause for speculation…if not enthusiastic anticipation. Beyond the soundtracks that have become one piece of the puzzle that defines who Torn is—and acting as engineer and/or producer for fellow unfettered explorers like saxophonist Tim Berne
on albums including Shadow Man
(ECM, 2013) as another—Torn was last heard on a curiously constructed improvised set with bassist Tony Levin
, Peter Gabriel
) and drummer Allan White (Yes
) on the unassumingly titled Levin Torn White
(Lazy Bones, 2007).
But it was Torn’s own Prezens
—the guitarist’s first album as a leader for ECM in 20 years, and a complete anomaly in his catalog, peopled by a group that included, in addition to Berne, keyboardist Craig Taborn
and drummer Tom Rainey
…essentially reconvening the saxophonist’s Hard Cell group from Hard Cell Live
(Screwgun, 2004) but, with the addition of Torn, making it a quartet—that turned out to be both the most fearless and best group of the guitarist’s career…and one of the nicest surprises of 2007.
While there are those who pine for Prezens, Volume Two
, those who know Torn also know that repetition simply isn’t part of his vocabulary. So, if it’s cause for celebration that the guitarist has released only sky
a mere eight years after Prezens
, it’s also cause for celebration that, rather than repeating himself with a second instalment from a band that, no doubt, would have been very, very good, Torn has chosen to go it alone and almost entirely in spontaneous real- time: just one man, one guitar, one electric oud and a bevy of effects—so much so that, in a Facebook conversation, Torn explained “what little bits which were not performed in the original real-time are so small as to be, ‘should I really even mention this?’ afterthoughts. I think there are three or four of these teensy itty-bits, and that’s it.” It’s an album that is, on one hand, beautiful in a curiously alien way and, on the other, as jagged and extreme as Torn has ever been. Having first shown up on ECM with Everyman Band—a quartet largely consisting of Lou Reed alum that released two albums including its eponymous 1982 debut (still criminally unavailable on CD and hard to find on vinyl) and 1985 follow-up Without Warning
been released on CD)—it was Torn’s appearance on Norwegian saxophonist Jan Garbarek
on 1985’s It’s Ok To Listen To The Gray Voice
that really got the guitarist some well- deserved attention in the jazz world. That he replaced Bill Frisell
in Garbarek’s group—and that he was similarly effects-heavy, quirky in his approach to constructing melodies and heavily reliant on a volume pedal to create lines lacking in his instrument’s usual attack—meant that there were many unfair comparisons to the rapidly ascending Frisell.
Still, it didn’t take long for Torn to assert his own personality on his own ECM dates: 1985’s Best Laid Plans
(a duo record with percussionist Geoffrey Gordon) and 1987’s far more impressive Cloud About Mercury
, a quartet record with Tony Levin (restricting himself to Chapman Stick and synth bass), the bassist’s King Crimson partner, Bill Bruford
, largely focusing on a variety of electronic drums, and trumpeter Mark Isham
. Cloud About Mercury
also became Torn’s first album to achieve “classic” status, well before the usual time required to assess one as such had passed. But it was a well-deserved critical and popular achievement, especially amongst the progressive rock community, and helped kickstart both his career and a reputation that, given the diminutive size of his discography as a leader, truly always seems to precede him…but with absolute justification. There is, quite simply, no other guitarist that sounds like Torn, even if Torn’s distinctive sound is a strange amalgam of everything from Frisellian Americana concerns to overdriven, whammy bar-driven, feedback-laden excursions of Jimi Hendrix
Beyond all the usual suspects, Torn has long incorporated concepts from other cultures as well, whether it’s in the snaky manner that he constructs Middle Eastern-informed phrases or his ability to use a whammy bar to create sonics that so resemble a human voice that the only other guitarist who can match him in this regard is Jeff Beck
. But Beck’s contexts are far more conventional. only sky
‘s nine original, real-time spontaneous compositions were created with, as the guitarist explains, “just my instrument and multiple looping devices, with some favorite fuzzboxes.” Another important contribution to the sound of some of only sky
‘s pieces is the sound of the room in which they were recorded: the Experimental Media and Performance Arts Center (EMPAC), in Troy, New York. Not unlike the Vigeland Mausoleum in Oslo, Norway—where artists like Arve Henriksen
and Stian Westerhus
have taken advantage of the room’s marvelous 20-second delay characteristic—the EMPAC’S high ceiling and acoustics that are, in Torn’s words, “pillowy but pithy at the same time,” contribute
another inspirational factor in the spontaneous compositional approach Torn employed for this record. Still, none of these characteristics pigeonhole only sky
‘s music, which ranges from the Americana-tinged “spoke with folks” and its unmistakable “Shenandoah” reference, to the opening “at least there was nothing,” where Torn adds an electric oud to the soundscape for a journey farther east.
The open-ended ambiguity of the title track provides Torn the opportunity to create cushions of dense sound over which the guitarist layers serpentine lines, ultimately resolving into a series of chords that shift the feel briefly, before closing the nine-minute excursion with the same enigmatic, Middle Eastern underpinning as its genesis. For those who question Torn’s harmonic sophistication, one listen to the closing “a goddamned specific unbalance” should resolve any doubts. Just as listening to the Frisell of Nashville
(Nonesuch, 1987) provides little to suggest the more complex Frisell of, say, This Land
(Nonesuch, 1994)—or, for that matter, his quarter century-plus trio with drummer Paul Motian
and Joe Lovano
—so, too, does trying to categorize Torn based on any one recording provide the guitarist the broad-scoped credibility that he deserves. Still—and despite this being a solo record—only sky
may come the closest to delivering the whole package when it comes to defining what David Torn is all about.
Solo recordings are always a dicey proposition; naked, with nobody to hide behind, the artist’s work is laid bare for all to hear. But given that only sky
is, according to Torn, “the closest to capturing what I do alone with a guitar at home,” it most accurately approaches who Torn is when he’s unbound by the constraints that most projects, if even inadvertently, impose. The result is a record that is his most idiomatic and individualized. Sonically it’s an expansive record that’s the antithesis of the traditional solo guitar record—not unlike label mate Eivind Aarset
‘s similarly superb but far more considered Dream Logic
(2012)—and for those looking to find clear form amidst the swirling clouds, elliptical phrases and chiming chordal passages, there will be plenty to challenge them. Still, everything from harsh angularity to unabashed beauty can be found on only sky
, yet another album which suggests that it’s those Torn makes for ECM that are invariably his best—and, in this case, his most personal, too.
Track Listing: at least there was nothing; spoke with folks; ok, shorty; was a cave, there…; reaching barely, sparely fraught; I could almost see the room; only sky; so much what; a goddamned specific unbalance. Personnel: David Torn: guitar, electric oud. Record Label: ECM Records Style: Modern Jazz __________________________________________________________________ Presented by Creative Music Works. David Torn – ever-exploratory guitarist, producer, improviser, film composer and soundscape artist – plays Denver’s Walnut Room in support of only sky, a solo recording of almost orchestral atmosphere.
It is Torn’s first ECM release since 2007’s acclaimed prezens, a full-band project (with Tim Berne, Craig Taborn & Tom Rainey) that Jazzwise described as “a vibrating collage full of shimmering sonic shapes, a dark, urban electronic soundscape – a potent mix of jazz, free-form rock and technology that is both demanding and rewarding.” Many of those same descriptors apply to only sky, with its hovering ambient shadows and vaulting flashes of light, its channeling of deep country/blues memories and Burroughsian dreams of North Africa. Recorded in the acoustically rich hall of the Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center in upstate New York – as well as in Torn’s more intimate studio lair – only sky is an album to get lost in, over and again. “This record is the closest to capturing what it is I do alone with a guitar at home – and in that way, only sky is the most personal record I’ve made,” Torn says. “When I’m improvising on my own in this way, it’s like a kind of self-hypnosis or, to put it another way, a sort of sonic, secular meditation. It’s real-time composition, but it’s about relaxing into it, enjoying the flow of sound, letting the music happen in its own time – and being open to the unexpected.”
Across his career, Torn has worked with jazz improvisers (Jan Garbarek, the Bad Plus), film composers (Ryuichi Sakamoto, Carter Burwell) and art-pop singers (David Bowie, David Sylvian). For prezens, Torn interacted with Berne (saxophone), Taborn (keyboards) and Rainey (drums) for hours of high-impact collective improvisation. Yet prezens was no documentary record, with Torn characteristically having “magicked” the tapes – remixing, reshaping and recomposing the music after its performance to create discrete collages of power and beauty, from unsettled ambience to unsettling violence. The mood swings of only sky are also intense, though they are introspective rather than extrovert. Torn weaves spontaneous melody from his ruminations, with earthy guitar tones emanating from the looping mist, echoing in the mind like a kind of aural dream. The character of the music was partly inspired by the space where much of it was created, explains Torn: “EMPAC in Troy is physically impressive and sonically inspiring – it’s an amazing, really high-ceilinged space, with acoustics that are pillowy but pithy at the same time. It gave us a dream guitar sound, and we incorporated a lot of room tone. I was alone there with just my engineer, Daniel Goodwin, and we recorded hours and hours of music that I then edited down – but with the aim of respecting the original free-flow. “I also recorded some more tune-oriented pieces in my studio, using intimacy like I used the space at EMPAC,” Torn adds. “Again, it was real-time writing but in a more directed way, making for a balance.
Even if it doesn’t always sound like it, all of the music is just my instrument and multiple looping devices, with some favorite fuzzboxes. The guitar and the looping devices were amplified separately, enabling that sense of both spaciousness and clarity.” The opening track of only sky, “at least there was nothing,” finds Torn incorporating the electric oud into his toolkit; the piece suggests an abstract evocation of Tangier, or rather the hallucinatory Interzone of Naked Lunch. For “spoke with folks,” he reflects upon the old New World, his current fascination with country guitar pickers made manifest in an original tune that sounds like an American folk song viewed through a sonic kaleidoscope – like a digital refraction of “Shenandoah.” And one can hear a kind of blues in the metallic riff of album highlight “reaching barely, sparely fraught,” which features some of Torn’s most beautifully earthy guitar lines. The liquid arpeggios of “so much what” make like waves in a dark pool, while the title track of only sky finds Torn at his most purely melodic – his raga-like lines spinning off into the ether. With the 13-minutes-plus “I could almost see the room,” it’s mutant abstraction, riffs turned inside out and echoing, Torn’s guitar crying out over a heartbeat rhythm. “These pieces have different planes of sound existing simultaneously and, at times, they interact, making for strange occurrences of polytonality that lead you to places you might not otherwise end up,” the guitarist explains. “That’s where I like to go in music.” David Torn In its glowing review of prezens, Torn’s 2007 ECM album, All About Jazz called it “the record that Torn fans have been waiting for, the most fully realized of his career… boldly adventurous.”
Twenty years before the release of prezens came his vintage ECM album Cloud About Mercury, which saw Torn interacting with trumpeter Mark Isham and the latter-day King Crimson rhythm section of Tony Levin and Bill Bruford. Torn’s initial tenure with the label also included Best Laid Plans, his 1984 release with drummer Geoffrey Gordon; and the guitarist featured on Jan Garbarek’s album It’s OK to Listen to the Gray Voice. More recently, Torn produced and mixed Tim Berne’s ECM albums Shadow Man (2013) and You’ve Been Watching Me (April 2015). Torn’s film scores include those for Friday Night Lights, Lars and the Real Girl, Everything Must Go and The Order. He has also contributed tones and textures to scores by Sakamoto, Burwell and Howard Shore, and his sounds can be heard in the Academy Award-winners Traffic and The Departed.