David Torn's “Prezens” is a collision of the organic and the synthetic, of technology and physicality. His first recording for ECM since the watershed “Cloud About Mercury” of 20 years ago, it features the guitarist, producer and film composer with three of New York City's more fearless improvising musicians -- alto saxophonist Tim Berne, keyboardist Craig Taborn and drummer Tom Rainey, long-time cohorts of each other. In early spring 2005, they gathered in a studio in the Hudson River Valley to record a dozen hours of collective improvisation, drawing on several years of experience playing live together in Manhattan and Brooklyn clubs, as well as at festivals in Canada and Europe. Yet “Prezens” is no documentary record, with Torn having "magicked" the tapes -- remixing, reshaping, recomposing the music after its performance to create discrete collages of power and beauty, by turns ambient and volatile. Much as a work of fiction can sometimes reveal more about an event than mere journalistic reportage, “Prezens” offers another point of view on the facts of the band in the room.
"The full band tracks are what we actually played together; even as I reshaped the material, I respected the special way the band works and sounds. But it isn't what we heard straight from playback. It's the skewed way I heard the music as it went down, alternate avenues included -- how it might've been if we had played something longer or shorter or if we had turned a different corner. The first piece, ‘Ak’ is a performance -- we played the heavy-metal part in there, but we didn't play it long enough. So, I made a loop out of it, did a few overdubs, then the loop goes back to the original performance. Other times, it's a matter of tweaking the mix to make it more asymmetrical, where one instrument is in high fidelity, but everything else is lo-fi. Then, there's a track like ‘Them buried standing.' That's me pulling Tom's drums out of a performance, then building something totally new around them."
The opener hints at a common American-groove gene pool, with the spirit of Booker T & the MGs rising momentarily above the bluesy, slow-burn rhythm before the band steps into freak-metal overdrive. Jazz-rock outfits including Lifetime, the original Mahavishnu Orchestra and the Miles Davis bands of the "Bitches Brew" and "Agartha" eras were early inspirations for Torn -- "but when I think of how I'd like this band to sound, I don't think of other bands anymore," he insists. "I just think of sounds."
As for the roots of “Prezens” in the quartet's combustible live profile, Torn says, "this band fulfills that dream of the ideal group I had as a kid -- a group of individualists confident in themselves but attuned to each other. So, instead of having just this jam band, which I've done before and can be fun at times, we're coming up with music in front of people or in front of microphones that sounds composed -- even though it wasn't at all, with no tunes brought in beforehand, just a sort of moving vocabulary between ourselves. Not only do we play without a net; everybody there listening realizes we're playing without a net. That's what I love about the group -- it's completely different from the work that I usually do. Much of my daily work is highly organized, whether it's mixing someone else's record, playing on a pop session or composing very symmetrical, melodic material for films. With these guys, there's no plan and I don't have to rein in my harmonic or rhythmic personality at all."
"I couldn't have fallen in with more suitable players," Torn continues. "A lot of “Prezens” is rooted to my relationship with Tim -- all those times he said, `What are you doing? Stop with all the films. Get out and play the guitar!' Tim is one of the great iconoclasts around today, truly his own man, his own musician. Craig is an improviser of real facility and personality, but he's also this creature of electronic oddness and ambient textural attitude. And who plays like Tom Rainey? He plays differently every time, willed to the situation."
The textures of “Prezens” shift from unsettled ambience to unsettling violence, with hovering calm at key intervals. There is the stomping "bulbs" and distressed post-Miles brew of "neck-deep in the harrow", as well as the madhouse funk of "sink". Then there is the mutated electric blues of "ever more other" and, with its steel-body acoustic sounding like an alien visitation, the otherworldly abstractions of "miss place, the mist . . . " The mood swings hint at Torn's self-described musical "schizophrenia". In his career, Torn has worked with innovators across jazz (Jan Garbarek), film music (Ryuichi Sakamoto) and pop/rock (David Sylvian, David Bowie, Jeff Beck).
Although known far and wide for his swirling soundscapes, Torn can play searing lead guitar. (The keening solos in "sink" or the bent-metal sculpture that is the opening of "transmit regardless.") Torn's playing belongs to no genre; he is an eclectic sensualist, having imbibed far-flung influences from Wes Montgomery, Jimi Hendrix and John McLaughlin to Allan Holdsworth, Fred Frith and early Bill Frisell. Jeff Beck is in there, too, as is Talking Heads-era Adrian Belew, not to mention the guitarists in such edgy bands as Bad Brains, My Bloody Valentine, Helmet and Soundgarden. The counterintuitive virtuosity of French guitarist Marc Ducret, with whom he has played in Tim Berne's Science Friction band, is a more recent inspiration. Then there is ECM's own Terje Rypdal, who "may play a Strat like Hendrix, but that rich, personal tone sounds like no one but him. And Terje's ability to place notes is down to him crossing the line from guitarist to composer, a place I like to be."
In the two decades since “Cloud About Mercury”, Torn has changed subtly as a player or, rather, he has morphed into even more of what he calls "a conceiver". His tone -- serrated one phrase and pealing the next -- is still unique like a fingerprint. "I still sound like me, but I'm much less concerned with being a guitarist. It may sound odd, but by not trying so hard to be a great guitar player, I've come closer to the full range of my instrument, that instrument being my imagination as much as it is the guitar."
Along with “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 -- the guitarist's previous tenure on ECM included “Best Laid Plans”, his 1984 album with drummer Geoffrey Gordon. Torn was also an essential seed in the free atmospherics of Jan Garbarek's 1984 album “It's OK to Listen to the Gray Voice”.
Torn's post-ECM discography includes the solo gems “Tripping Over God” (1995) and “What Means Solid, Traveller?” (1996). “Polytown” (1994) featured Torn in a post-rock trio with fretless bassist Mick Karn (ex-Japan) and drummer Terry Bozzio (ex-Zappa). In 1998, he recorded “Gtr Oblique” with fellow six-string experimenters Elliott Sharp and Vernon Reid. Using the electronica nom-de-guerre Splattercell, Torn released the 2000 album “OAH”, a manifesto of cut-and-paste aesthetics; the companion piece “ReMiksis” upped the ante with remixes of “OAH” tracks by the likes of Ryuichi Sakamoto, Carter Burwell and Dan the Automator.
He has excelled in film music, bringing in his outre experiences as well as orchestral influences from Bernard Hermann to Tigran Mansurian. His scores include those for “Friday Night Lights”, the new “Believe in Me” (winner of best score at the Jackson Hole Film Festival) and the 2003 film “The Order”. The latter soundtrack is a dark marvel of electro-acoustic exotica, interweaving manipulated tabla, oud, Tibetan chant, Bulgarian choirs and, of course, guitar -- although, as Torn says, "the things that used to be guitars are easier to hear than to describe". Torn has also contributed tones and textures to scores by Sakamoto, Burwell and Isham, and his sounds can be heard in the 2000 hit “Traffic” and this year's Best Picture Oscar-winner, “The Departed”.
Torn's work in the pop arena has taken him from David Sylvian's "Secrets of the Beehive" band and sessions for Bowie to writing, playing and/or producing for Kaki King, John Legend, Tori Amos. It's quite a leap from the pop charts to “Prezens”, but Torn's multiple personalities obviously work well together. As part of his return to the ECM fold, he has plans for a solo guitar album and more. To Torn, the goal remains the same no matter what the parameters are on a given day: "I strive to be totally open, whether I'm working on something as scripted as a film score or totally improvising with the band. I'm always trying to be present in the creative moment, and with “Prezens”, I think we're all there."
-- Bradley Bambarger, NYC