Sun of Goldfinger: Congratulations to You

Most of the material on this record was captured at the first performance in 2010 by David Torn (guitars and electronics), Tim Berne (alto and baritone saxophones) and Ches Smith (drums and electronics). Known since then as Sun of Goldfinger, this power trio opened a sonic can of worms to be reckoned with that’s only now seeing the light of aural day.

Featuring three tracks of hefty proportion, the album opens with “Bat Tears,” in which alto, sampled in real time and cast into the active volcano that is Torn’s looping guitar, gives way to a skronky baritone, ending in a mix of drone and catharsis. Following this, “Coco Tangle” dances as if its pants were on fire (though, to be sure, this is honest music rendered in tough love). Sampling does the trick again this time around while arpeggiators and percussive accents from Smith fill in every pothole. That said, no roads herein stay smooth for too long and even the thickest tires of expectation will find themselves beautifully compromised by the terrain ahead.

Despite the fact that Sun of Goldfinger can break out the big guns when it feels so inclined, there’s a distinctly meditative heart beating at the center of it all. One hears this especially in the final and title track, where a train crossing signal-like guitar stretches over head-nodding drums before alto kicks in the door bearing gifts of awakening. The sheer depth of coherence that ensues is a balm to behold in these wounded times.

(This article, in its original form, appeared in the September 2020 issue of The New York City Jazz Record, a full PDF of which is available here.)

Torn/Berne/Smith: Sun Of Goldfinger (ECM 2613)

Sun Of Goldfinger

Sun Of Goldfinger

David Torn electric guitar, live-looping, electronics
Tim Berne alto saxophone
Ches Smith drums, electronics, tanbou
Craig Taborn electronics, piano
Scorchio Quartet
Amy Kimball violin
Rachel Golub violin
Martha Mooke viola
Leah Coloff cello
Mike Baggetta guitar
Ryan Ferreira guitar
Recorded September 2015 and August 2018 at The Bunker, Brooklyn Recording, EMPAC & Isokon Studios
Engineer: Daniel James Goodwin
Assistants: Adam Tilzer and Nolas Thies
Mixing: David Torn
Produced by David Torn
Release date: March 1, 2019

The trio featured on Sun Of Goldfinger coalesced in 2010, by which time guitarist David Torn and saxophonist Tim Berne had shared many years of collaborative experience between them, but to whom percussionist Ches Smith was a name as fresh as his talent. Over the next seven years, they opened themselves to the evolutionary potential of their collective body, to the point where they began laying down the tracks that would one day yield this self-titled debut.

The album opens and closes with two free improvisations, although not in the traditional sense of spontaneous creation. Rather, they are a product of mixing longer freak-outs into coherent mosaics. The result of what Torn calls this “gigantic reveal” is a sound-world bent on tattooing itself with permanence even as it dissolves in its own acid.

A hyperaware guitar licks the sky with flame in “Eye Meddle,” its electronic chemtrails a blissful grid of emotional circumstance. Smith’s own digital ephemera likewise render spaces larger than one might expect from a mere trio, as Berne cuts horizontally across their rising thermals of parthenogenesis. While Torn and Smith weave a sonic tapestry that is as much stratospheric as it is subterranean, Berne grafts on to dark matter of a highly different order, linking chains of notes in warped circularity. So committed is Berne to fighting a kneejerk fall into traction that he drops out of the matrix almost in protest when Smith drops his drum-and-bass groove. Berne struggles against its draw, adding fuel to the fire as Torn’s sun burns itself into a lightless dwarf of its former glory.

“Soften The Blow” opens more bloodshot eyes, itching along the edges of consciousness. This a deeper and darker pit of despair that nevertheless touches its reflection with childlike curiosity and opens the window to possibilities never before entertained. That said, one might draw filament influences to early Painkiller (saxophonist John Zorn’s power trio with bassist Bill Laswell and drummer Mick Harris), the only outfit I would dare to draw comparison. For while their sound and imagery occupy spaces of their own, there’s a kindred spirit of creation going on here that speaks its own will to power.

(Photo credit: Robert Lewis)

The album’s molten core is “Spartan, Before It Hit,” a piece conceived and constructed by Torn, who adds a string quartet, two guitarists (Mike Baggetta and Ryan Ferreira), and pianist Craig Taborn to the mix. What begins in arco bliss spills out across an arid plane of ancient caravan beats. Torn’s guitar has its day, shining brighter than our nearest star as if to bleach out the universe. The axis tilts, one dramatic degree at a time, until polarities are reversed on their way toward returning to neutral. It’s a process that’s both mournful and ecstatic: a sense of corporeal lust transforming into light.

David Torn: only sky (ECM 2433)

only sky

David Torn
only sky

David Torn guitar, electric oud
Recorded February 2014 at the EMPAC Concert Hall, Troy, NY and Cell Labs, NY
Engineer: D. James Goodwin
Assistant engineer: Steve McLaughlin
Produced by David Torn
Executive producer: Manfred Eicher

The solo artist is never alone. David Torn therefore can only speak of improvisation as a form of “self-hypnosis” or “secular meditation,” acknowledging either way the role of an alternate self or spatial reality to give context to his outpourings. Having passed through the filters of wide-ranging genres, including seminal appearances on ECM, the elusive yet ever-productive guitarist returns with a set of spontaneously composed pieces: just he, himself, and I.

It’s difficult to place Torn in any particular tradition based on one recording alone, but listening to only sky it’s easy to see how his influence has crept into the younger generation of guitar-oriented smiths—in particular James Plotkin, Tim Hecker, and Christian Fennesz—and how Torn continues to enrich the wider landscape by means of a style that is more personal than ever. Each piece on only sky develops as it will, treading wherever feet may land and without fear of erasure, if only because erasure was the purpose for its invention.


Influences from the other direction may feel warranted here and there, not least of all in the Bill Frisell-like desolation of “spoke with folks.” Tearing off chunks from its quilted prairie as the starts of new memories, Torn elicits electronic tics from the feedback loop of his instrument, reminding that what we hear occurs at the level of intervention between body-spaces and thought-technologies. Even the smoother title track sounds at points like Buckethead at his most lyrical. But beneath all this associative skin flows a blood type with few potential donors. Torn’s ability to breathe through the guitar is certainly in a league of its own, and here his thoughtful pauses and expectorations both flow back into themselves, diving into the awkwardness of a first swim with all the love in the world.

In accordance with their evocatively open-ended titles, few of the album’s individual tracks are consistent in either mood or construction. The opening “at least there was nothing” sets a precedent for just this sort of unraveling. What begins in an expansive drone morphs into an errorful stream of purpose, which nevertheless sees little need to define itself in such terms. The contours imply something soft, aerodynamic. But then, the guitar grows spindles, as if waiting to snare a lightning bug, and this it seems to do the moment Torn picks up an electric oud and directs its itinerant voice into the sunlight. Similarly, “I could almost see the room” eases in by way of ambience, only to reveal that its quietude is a matter of distance and not temperament. At the helm, Torn’s guitar sputters from the notes stuck in its throat, each level of dislodging painstakingly recorded for posterity. Even “a goddamned specific unbalance” turns straightforward picking into a numerical sequence of hysterical motherboards.

Some moments, such as the twisted smiles of “ok, shorty,” bleed with omniscience. Others, such as the speech patterns of “reaching barely, sparely fraught,” exist at standstills of communication by the fascination of their own pulses. The cryptic “so much that” seems more like a continuation of itself, flushed with so much warmth that it must keel over and sing before succumbing to the past tense. This leaves only one standing: the seemingly more abstract but in reality most forthrightly singing piece of circuit bending known as “was a cave there…” Through its removal of wires, this masterful act of surgery amplifies the swan song of each precordial snap in a requiem for biological determinism. A crowd gathers in the lungs, writing its manifesto of escape bit by immeasurable but in those spaces between breaths. And when at last they breach contract by emanating through a scream, the body realizes that its fundamental error was symbiosis, no longer taken for granted as it inhales the mounting swarm of resistance and subsumes itself to a greater cause in the final tone.

Torn is part of the natural order of the airborne, the bottom end of a power chord that dips out of sight just before it can be consumed. His guitar is a choir, formless yet undeniably material, coaxing from the very earth particles of resonance. It is the crosshair within a crosshair, aimed at itself for the purpose not of annihilation but of undoing. In this enmeshment of noise and solace, the benefits of experience are in the details. Like pareidolia, the psychological phenomenon that predisposes us to seeing images in the clouds or moon, this music invites us to read it as we will. Yet the more we do so, the more the music reads shapes into us in return. It’s all so beautifully uncomfortable that it might just never leave you once it finds a way in.

(To hear samples of only sky, click here.)

David Torn: Prezens (ECM 1877)


David Torn

David Torn guitars, live-sampling and manipulation
Tim Berne alto saxophone
Craig Taborn Fender Rhodes, Hammond B3, mellotron, bent circuits
Tom Rainey drums
Matt Chamberlain drums
Recorded March 2005 at Clubhouse Studios, Rhinebeck, New York
Engineer: Hector Castillo
Produced by David Torn

Prezens marks David Torn’s return to ECM after a long hiatus since cloud about mercury. Here the guitarist joins altoist Tim Berne, keyboardist Craig Taborn, and drummer Tom Rainey for a combustible tangle of music making. The band, goes the backstory, recorded a dozen hours of free improvisation, from which were culled and refashioned an album’s worth of material, surgeried by Torn post factum. Finding one’s way through the end product may be no small task, but reaps its rewards in proportion to the openness of the ears receiving them.

At sound center is Torn himself, who, if not picking his glyphs across six amplified strings, is deepening them at the mixing board. Indeed, his presence (the album’s title under another name?) echoes far beyond the chord that stretches its yawn across “ak” in a swirling electronic haze. If the appearance of drums, organ, and saxophone seems out of place in this opening track, it is because they belong there so needfully. Ambient constructions flit in and out of aural purview, foiling the physicality of the acoustic here and now. Trailing the footfalls of Berne’s ghostly doppelganger, they trip over grungy riffs from Torn, who invites satirically blissful finish. Ganglion to ganglion, each instrumental element touches the third eye of something cerebral yet instantly accessible. Accessible, yes, because of the music’s inability to clothe itself. This isn’t meant to make your head nod, but to implode.

Spoken words hide like poison in “rest & unrest,” an exploration of the illusory nature of reality, a musical testimony led astray by its own shadow. It reveals the album’s variety of diction and leads into the evolved patterning of “structural functions of prezens.” As Torn’s electric keens distantly yet with the bleed-through of a Venn diagram, cells of machine-gun drumming turn this forlorn jam session into an exercise in self-destruction. Berne’s alto weaves its legato path across a landscape that is equal parts Jon Hassell and Steve Tibbetts, as if smuggling genomes across the border between consciousness and unconsciousness. So begins a chain of possible references one might connect. The electrical charge of Elliott Sharp activates the filaments of “bulbs,” while Bill Frisell’s weeds tumble through the ghost town of “them buried standing,” the latter further notable for its angelic resolution.

The album’s latter half mines decidedly urban sites of sonic production. The mélange of beat and grunge that is “sink” pulses with the muffled wisdom of an underworld nightclub. Berne’s hard-hitting altoism here gives the sheen of dislocation that comes with dreams. Yet grooves are rare on Prezens, because this project is less about the hook than about the catch dangling and writhing on its barb. Despite the metallurgy of “ever more other” and “ring for endless travel,” two further rhythmic outliers, warped atmospheres prevail. By those atmospheres the music is always connected, whether in the jangly slide acoustic of “miss place, the mist…” or in the mock shredding of “transmit regardless,” so that by album’s end we find ourselves wrapped in a swan song to impetuous youth by way of looking into the maturity of an artist who with his cohorts has unearthed a timeworn stone to contemplate for decades more.

Prezens is an album of inbound escapism—that is, one which enjoys getting lost in itself. Its codes come to us broken, for they speak only of that which was never whole.

David Torn: cloud about mercury (ECM 1322)

David Torn
cloud about mercury

David Torn guitars
Mark Isham trumpets, synthesizer
Tony Levin bass
Bill Bruford drums, percussion
Recorded March 1986 at Audio International, London
Engineer: Andy Jackson
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Guitarist David Torn defines jazz fusion, proving that the genre is more than add and stir. With cloud about mercury he made his most personal statement to date. The album sounds like many things: a sweep of Steve Tibbetts dimensions, a Jon Hassell think piece, a tree with many cultural branches, a spider’s web in sound. Torn roams freely throughout these territories, shouldering a vast load of thematic material. The opening wash of heaven that is “Suyafhu Skin…Snapping The Hollow Reed” condenses much of that material, letting fall a quiet storm of continental activity. Detuned guitars and a bubbling synthesizer part the way for Tony Levin’s grounded bass lines and trumpeter Mark Isham’s sustained flights, while drummer Bill Bruford chases after, somehow keeping pace. Next is “The Mercury Grid,” another engaging rhythm piece that boasts Isham in a Molværian mode. Torn flexes acrobatically here, swinging from every branch of this sonic corridor. The curiously titled “3 Minutes Of Pure Entertainment” is a mid-tempo groove that again features soaring guitar. Torn’s fractal precision speckles “Previous Man,” which begins with two guitars before engaging drums and synth bass in staggered syncopations. The likeminded “Network Of Sparks: The Delicate Code” sets off an intriguing chain of electric events, all the more enigmatic for their brevity. Which brings us to “Network Of Sparks: Egg Learns To Walk…Suyafhu Seal,” a warm, gelatinous mosaic that slices the night into ribbons like light through a window blind, rendering empty space into a virtual stairway by curls of cigarette smoke.

cloud about mercury represents a pinnacle of Torn’s craft and is must-have for the adventurous.

<< John Abercrombie: Getting There (ECM 1321)
>> Gavin Bryars: Three Viennese Dancers (ECM 1323 NS)

Everyman Band: Without Warning (ECM 1290)


Everyman Band
Without Warning

Marty Fogel tenor, soprano, alto saxophones, clarinet, flute
David Torn guitars, effects
Bruce Yaw electric bass
Michael Suchorsky drums, synthesizer
Recorded December 1984 at Bearsville Studios, Bearsville, New York
Engineer: Mark McKenna
Produced by Hans Wendl

After the mind-numbing crunch of the Everyman Band’s self-titled debut, and considering the title of this follow-up, little did I expect the sprightly charm of “Patterns Which Connect.” This smooth opener is as uplifting as heck, due not least to Bruce Yaw’s rubber band bass line Marty Fogel’s soaring tenor. “Talking With Himself,” on the other hand, seems to begin in the middle of a stream of improvisatory energy, but continues with an openness that is nothing if not welcoming. Guitarist David Torn grinds his axe on flint stone and spits plenty of flame, but is content in periodically laying down his torch so as not to obscure Michael Suchorsky’s keen drumming. Like a spoon through porridge, “Multibluetonic Blues” works viscous nourishment into edible consistency, blending the tenor saxophone’s soulful brown sugar crust before the searing heat can burn it black. “Celebration 7” sounds like a plugged klezmer tune and shows the band in fine attunement, as does the whimsy of “Trick Of The Wool.” The album’s most appropriate title comes from “Huh What He Say,” which from an initial drawl finds linguistic traction in Fogel’s throwback of a solo. “Al Ur” caps things off with another vibrant sponge that soaks up all of the goodness that surrounds it.

This could easily be described as a killer of an album, were it not for the fact that it gives rather than takes life away. Along with Neighbourhood and Travels, it is among ECM’s more feel-good albums. Like a comedy of manners disguised as a film noir, it titillates behind an artful gloss.

<< Keith Jarrett Trio: Standards, Vol. 2 (ECM 1289)
>> Oregon: Crossing (ECM 1291)

David Torn: Best Laid Plans (ECM 1284)

David Torn
Best Laid Plans

David Torn guitars
Geoffrey Gordon percussion
Recorded July 1984 at Rainbow Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher

David Torn is one of the more indefinable guitarists on planet Earth and has left an alluring hatching of marks on ECM’s wall. Vivid among them is this unusual session with percussionist Geoffrey Gordon. Their pastiche navigates a territory that lies somewhere between Elliott Sharp, Steve Tibbetts, Terje Rypdal, and Bill Frisell. Torn’s electric is a storm of spirals and tails, surges and dissolves. The smooth arpeggios and inevitable disruptions of “Before The Bitter Wind” and the title track project a life lived through dreams and nightmares alike. The glow of “The Hum Of Its Parts” unfolds through Torn’s itching and pliant core, dramatized by Gordon’s highly connected tabla. One highlight, if in name only, is “Removable Tongue,” a guitar solo that twists its way around a relatively melodic caduceus and seems to have a good influence on “In The Fifth Direction,” which is perhaps the most unified blend of rhythm and texture on the album. After the sweltering heat rash of “Two Face Flash,” Torn rattles the firmament with “Angle of Incidents,” every grating cry a search for lost questions to extant answers.

Torn’s playing is a unique beast. It is oblique in such a way that, even when fully formed, it remains somehow distant, calling to us as if from the future and gone by the time we catch up. The best we can do is to stand where we are and wait for its evocative disintegration.

<< Paul Motian Trio: it should’ve happened a long time ago (ECM 1283)
>> Bruno Ganz: Hölderlin – Gedichte gelesen von Bruno Ganz (ECM 1285 NS)