About two years ago, guitarist David Torn, saxophonist Tim Berne and drummer Ches Smith were playing a gig at the Vortex Jazz Club in London. Torn had some spacious guitar loops going, and the three of them were flowing in the same head space. Torn says he and Berne looked at each other across the stage, while Smith opened a floodgate.
“He was doing everything that I think we probably always wanted him to do but never said anything about, because we like self-motivation, and the idea is just be yourself, right?” Torn says. “As simple as that. Just play what you think is the right thing to play.”
While that adventurous improvisation collective, dubbed Sun of Goldfinger, first formed in 2010 and has played the occasional gig since, Torn says that concert at the Vortex was where everything came together. Part of the reason for the shift in the trio at the time was that Smith had just started bringing in a looper and a fuzz box and using music apps on his iPhone. He also started playing grooves, which Torn says got deeper and deeper.
On Sun of Goldfinger’s self-titled ECM debut, released March 1, Smith loops bass parts and uses electronics. Two of the twenty-minute-plus songs on the album (“Eye Meddle” and “Soften the Blow”) are continuous improvisations, and while there are only the three musicians playing, there’s a lot happening. Torn, who played on Davie Bowie’s Heathen, Reality and The Next Day and scored multiple films, is a master textural guitar player, deft with electronics and looping while not being afraid to shred at concerts.
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“Spartan, Before It Hit,” the third song on the album, which also runs over twenty minutes, includes the trio plus guitarists Mike Baggetta and Ryan Ferreira, pianist Craig Taborn and the Scorchio String Quartet. Torn composed the first section of the tune, fueled by Smith’s tribal drumming on the tanbou, a Haitian barrel drum, but it morphs into collective improvisation a little less than halfway through, with Torn and Berne essentially screaming with their instruments.
There are some ferocious moments on the album, while other times the music is sprawling and textural or groove-based. When Torn, who produced the album, made some of the initial mixes of material, he sent them to Berne, who kept saying, “I don’t think this sounds like anything else. It does not sound like Miles Davis. It does not sound like Phish. It doesn’t sound like Snarky Puppy. It doesn’t sound like Weather Report. It doesn’t sound like Ornette [Coleman]. It doesn’t sound like the Jajouka musicians. But it does sound like itself.”
And that sound, which Torn says isn't jazz or rock, has evolved organically, with no discussion before gigs about what they'll be playing.
“I think the feeling of playing with the band is so overwhelming, you’re just off going, ‘I just want it to be how we feel,'" Torn says. "It sounds so dumb: 'I just want it to be how we feel.' As musicians and human beings, we function in continuums. You have your brilliant moment, blah, blah, blah — the shock of lighting strike, and something strange occurs that couldn’t have occurred, or maybe you think shouldn’t have occurred musically, but it did. And you remember that. But I don’t think we struggle with that. I think it’s just a question of making the efforts be independent of each other, to listen to each other and to try to create something together. As simple as that. It’s really where it lands. That’s kind of what it is. It sounds too simple to be okay.”
On Sun of Goldfinger’s current tour, Torn says, the trio won’t be trying to re-create material from the new album, but rather will do what the three musicians have been doing since forming in 2010.
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“There is a thing that we have that is hard to describe,” Torn says. “And that thing is going to be present. On this segment of this tour, we are going ahead with that. I’m not telling anybody what to play. So far, nobody’s telling me what to play. The interesting thing about it is if I go back and listen to the things that I felt the best about as a band, they all sound like things that somebody wrote. Every one of them.”
Torn recalls a peak gig for the trio at a festival in Lisbon in the summer of 2017 where he’d worried the set was short, but they’d actually played a half an hour longer than the hour-long set they were supposed to play.
“It was so engrossing,” Torn says. “What I remember about it is that engrossment. Being completely absorbed in the music, knowing that I was contributing to a composition that was being created that will probably never be repeated again. You don’t think that in your head while you’re doing it, but you know it in your body.”
Sun of Goldfinger, featuring David Torn, Tim Berne and Ches Smith, 7 p.m. Sunday, March 17, Dazzle, $10-$25. Visiting Artist Masterclass with Sun of Goldfinger, 4 to 6 p.m., Saturday, March 16, King Center Recital Hall, free.