Known for his innovative, textural approach to guitar playing, David Torn has released a number of albums under his own name and under the Splattercell moniker. He's also used his talents for film scoring and collaborated with a diverse set of artists including David Bowie, Laurie Anderson, Sting and John Legend.
Torn's musical palette has many colors, and when describing his forward-thinking trio, Sun of Goldfinger, which also features saxophonist Tim Berne and drummer Ches Smith, he says, "It's three really crazy guys trying to make something simultaneously beautiful and horrific." We spoke with Torn recently about the trio's aesthetic, his textural approach to guitar playing, his forthcoming solo record and producing an album that pairs pop singer Donna Lewis with the Bad Plus.
Westword: I know you and Tim Berne go back a ways. When you first started the group, did you have any idea of what direction you wanted to go in?
David Torn: Yeah. I wanted to take the idea of the last band -- the Prezens band that was on ECM -- I wanted to strip it back a little bit further, so it's down to a trio, and I'm the only chordal instrument. That was part of it.
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The other thing was that we just wanted to find another flavor, in an improvising context, that got another step further away from people thinking it's a jazz band, because we all have an association with something that used to be called jazz. I don't know what it is we do, but I wanted more opportunity for the sound things to grow -- all the sonic things. It's a tough thing. It's easy for me and Tim because we know when we're improvising....
Tim lives in New York, so he's in a very vital scene. I don't live in the city, so my association with the younger musicians has to be through other people like Tim. And Tim went to see Ches play a couple of times and said, "This is your guy. We could do anything."
There's a certain aesthetic; there really are no rules. There's a very specific aesthetic that grows directly out of the same aesthetic that the Prezens band was about, which is that it doesn't need to sound like it's idiomatic. Everybody's trying to create something that is driven by a kind of compositional need, so that it's not really -- it's like an outgrowth of what used to be called free jazz, except, of course, it's pretty electric.
And there is no barrier against...in fact, there's an encouragement to find things together, as if they feel they've been composed. Since everybody in the band does compose, that's one of the key elements of anybody who's in any of these bands: Everybody writes something somewhere along the line, so that it's not just like people blowing.
There is some kind of internal aesthetic that I could be incredibly verbose about, and in the end it doesn't mean anything, because I can't describe it -- and that's why we play the music. It's about creating a really open but very demanding platform for the musicians in the band to create in the moment.
Part of that for me started early in life. At the end of the '90s, I had kind of started to perform again after having disappeared for a while for various reasons -- studios, beginning to write a lot of music, etcetera, etcetera... Being a producer. All that stuff. I just stopped going out and playing live.
At the end of the '90s, I started going out again with this aesthetic, saying, "I really want to do the improvising gigs but I want to do them with the right people." I don't want to deal with people that don't share a similar aesthetic because I want something that can grow. And this is one of those bands.
It's kind of like... Strangely, it's a very recorded band but I've not released anything because there's a plan to make an ECM record. Since this has been going on for a long time, this band has been going on for about three years, in and out, irregularly, but in various forms.
There's been a strong push for me to bring some of my writing to the band as long as it stays as open as it's been. And that's going to begin with the ECM recording. I'm actually going to bring some very open material for people to interpret. So, that's kind of what it's about. It's three really crazy guys trying to make something simultaneously beautiful and horrific.
Any idea when the ECM record will be coming out?
I'm not clued in because my sensibility tells me that a solo guitar record is coming first and then they'll be another group record. I think that the solo guitar record is imminent, but I haven't talked to Manfred [Eicher, founder of ECM Records] in about a month, so I can't really put a finger on that. But I'm pretty sure that the solo record will come first. My suspicion is that there will be a solo record out in either December or January.
Have you ever released just a straight solo record before?
Never. I mean, I did solo records. I did three or four. I did the Splattercell discs, records that are all me or me organizing everything. I did a couple of CMP records in the '90s -- two Splattercell records, etetera -- but I've never actually played solo guitar. There's one solo guitar piece on one of the CMP records, but this is a whole record of very raw performances of solo guitar.
Will it be different than your textural stuff?
I think it's pretty different, dude.
When you said it was going to be raw...
Well, raw for me means... I've actually recorded a bunch, and I have a tendency, when I play by myself, to limit the number of sounds I'm going to use when I am playing for myself, and that's what I decided this should be. I also have a tendency to look for tunes when I'm improvising live. A couple of these are remarkably tuneful and a few of them are... I don't know, they're pretty strange. But some of them are very raw. They're basically all one take, live. One track, no multi-tracks.
Any looping or that kind of thing?
Yeah, there's definitely a couple of different kinds of looping. Some of it's very modern and others use more from the body of sounds that I've been working on since 1980-something, 1970-whatever. Some of them are wetter, and many of them are much not wetter.
Being more of a textural guitar player, is there anything that took you down that road, say, rather being more of a chops-based technical player?
I think it had a lot to do with being bored of the idea of blowing. I think that it was a path that I took for a long time and many of my heroes were on that path and some of my teachers. And I just felt like I was always in bands where I wanted to hear something beyond that. The turning point of all that was -- I had two turning points - the first was hearing Terry Riley solo live.
The second one was a negative reaction when I started doing some looping stuff and all my friends knew who [Robert] Fripp was and I didn't. I felt like I had to listen to that and be compared to that for quite a number of years. But, man, I love Robert both personally and musically, but that was a strange turn. But the real second big turning point was hearing Jon Hassell play. That was huge for me.
Sometimes I play a lot more dry guitar on a lot of things that many people kind of know. I enjoy doing that. It's part of my regular day. But in terms of, like, presenting music, I just always felt like I was in these bands where I wanted something else out of the sound of the guitar. In 1979, Don Cherry said to me...
Playing a sort of fusion music, I hadn't started investigating other sort of mechanical sounds. I didn't really have any effects with me with Don, but I did a lot of things with my hands that were a little bit different. Different techniques and tried to change the sound of the instrument. He kept battering away at me, saying, "The guitar doesn't matter. It's not the guitar. You can be any sound you want to be. You just need to be that sound."
And it would seem kind of like mystical at the time. In fact, it was a very practical piece of advice for being able to like, I don't know, just have an idea in your head -- the idea in some way being a sound that you heard rather than feeling yourself to be limited to the instrument you play, which is a very typical instrumental thing to do.
You know, saxophone players play the saxophone. Guitar players play the guitar in narrower and narrower ranges, and I always felt like my role in bands needed to be more than that. I needed to orchestrate a little bit, to fill in spaces or create spaces.
It's all good for me. It's fine for me in any way as long as the music is moving me and helps me to move myself forward in some way. I have to feel like I'm on the move. So the last couple of years, maybe ten years, I've made an effort to start bringing some of the techniques that I know from being a guy who sits around with computers -- even on the film scores where what I'm doing is pretty square.
I mean that not in a hip-versus-square thing, but a square kind of way. Much for form oriented music in many ways. From sitting around with the computer, since the beginning of computers and music, a lot of techniques I've always been able to do on the computer that are not really so easy to do live.
Since around '99 or 2001, I started to find ways to bring some of those techniques into regular guitar playing without synthesizing them and without doing them after the fact. That stuff is still really very exciting to me although it's just another area, another set of colors on a palette that I hope is kind of expanding.
It's not my main thing, but it's really nice to be able to find your way into being able to manipulate the glitchier kind of broken, interrupted-type of sounds directly on the guitar rather than waiting until you're in the studio to chop things up into small pieces and re-order them. This stuff I find very exiting right now. I'm back in an excitement stage with that concept.
A couple of years ago, I played a Wes Montgomery-plays-Stratocaster-type of solo on a big hit record with John Legend. Nobody knows I played on that. And I wasn't hired to do that. They had really great guitar players on the session like Doyle Bramhall III. And I got convinced against my wishes to do this thing, but in the end, you turn around and look at stuff like that and you go, "I love that. That's a part of me too."
Playing Wes Montgomery kind of octaves with my thumb solo, pretty much interpreting the vocal melody during the solo, but I'm playing through a 100-watt amp. Clean. A 120-watt, clean through a three two-by-twelve speaker cabinet.
You're in the studio with the Bad Plus. What are you doing with those guys? I know you've worked with drummer Dave King before in a duo setting.
That's something that we're continuing these years, the duets with me and Dave. That's really enjoyable. The first one was rough but beautiful. The second one was killing. We both got too busy to find another date. We start again in November. He gets off the road at the same time I finish my next film, which is right before Thanksgiving. I think we're going to play a couple of gigs and see if we want to take it further.
The Bad Plus record is actually something that I put together. It's not actually a Bad Plus record. My friend Donna Lewis, who I've written a few songs for, was a great singer and a very successful pop singer, and then she was so successful that she decided she would take a bunch of years and just kind of go at music but basically raise her son. I've known her since '98 or so and right around the peak of her pop -- very pop -- popularity she had a huge... She's just a beautiful singer, dude.
I've always felt, just around 2000, that her next move should be to play with an acoustic trio that's just super fucking cool. For one reason or another, it didn't really happen. Something got triggered about six months ago and somebody came to the table. I met this guy at a club gig. It was a quartet: me, Tim Berne, Matt Mitchell and Dave King.
This guy that I know... we started talking about Donna. He's also a friend of Donna's. I said to him at that point, "Since 2000 I've wanted Donna to do something with an acoustic trio. She didn't have to be a jazz singer, but I just want to hear in that context of people who know how to play jazz but also know about other music as well -- pop music, electronic music, whatever."
So, I said that to him and about a week later I get a phone call from Donna's manager and he said, "You know that conversation you had with that dude? Well, that dude has decided to put together funding to do this record. Obviously, it if happens, would you like to produce it?" I said, "Of course." He said, "Would you produce and arrange?" I said, "I'll arrange to some degree but if we get a great band all I need to do is give direction. I'll help her pick the tunes."
I wanted to do one of my pop songs. They were going to do two but I actually nixed one of them. It all came to pass. It took months to go down. I brought the Bad Plus to the table because I thought, "Okay, here's a singer who's from another world entirely. The best thing I can do for her would probably be to bring her a band or at least a rhythm section -- drums and bass who have been working together so she doesn't feel like she's lost at sea."
That's a tough thing to do. It could have Dean Sharp and Sebastian Steinberg at the rhythm section. It could have Matt Chamberlain. You know what I mean? People who know the jazz environment and really know it but can play to any sensibility without being fusion-y, without feeling like a forced fusion. I can kind of went, "Why don't we get the whole band. Ethan's amazing."
I thought, "I don't think these guys will want to do this as the Bad Plus as players." But this would really give her some strength. And, dude, so far is worked out so fucking well I can't even believe it. It sounds so good to me that I thought I would not want to talk about doing any standards at all. I'm playing on it a little bit. I'm hardly doing much. It's definitely not about me.
And it sounds so good that out of the nasty corner of my mind I asked them to cover this one real super standard jazz tune and just hit a minor seventh... Basically for one minute I said something about the improv section. Of course, the whole band got exactly what I was talking about, which was, "Do your thing. I just want you to not play the tune during that section. I don't care if there's time or there isn't time, I want you to work around this particular concept. Don't think about playing the tune. You can consider the feeling of the tune."
It was like magic. I can't even believe it. On the rehearsal tapes, it sounds good that I'm thinking that maybe it's good enough to be a track on the record. It's so cool. I'm having a really good time. It sounds great and it's amazing to watch a singer that you know is incredibly capable just kind of like step out of the pop thing and really blossom. She's not a diva at all. She totally feels like a band member. It's great. I'm loving it.
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