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David Torn: A Lifetime of Improvisation in Non-Improvisational Settings

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I have come to understand that what my personality needs is to not worry about idiom or pigeonholes or labels. To really, really not worry about it, and just try to pursue a voice. There are rock players, and there are jazz players--and I
David Torn has done work in so many capacities in such a variety of musical projects that it's somewhat daunting to try to state just what exactly he is.

Certainly Torn's a guitarist of humbling technique—but he's always been more interested in texture and sound than the kind of electric shredding beloved in guitar-hero-worshiping circles. Torn studied composition with Leonard Bernstein and guitar with John Abercrombie and Pat Martino. It was during his tenure as guitarist with the New York-based Everyman Band—a group originally formed to support rock artist Lou Reed—that Torn's unusual, processed electric textures and highly original approach began to get noticed—and this attention only grew with the releases of two ECM recordings under his own name, Best Laid Plans (1985) and Cloud About Mercury (1987).

Torn parted ways with ECM, but has continued to release excellent records such as the 1996 solo CD What Means Solid, Traveller? (CMP) and the electronics-saturated 2000 release under his Splattercell moniker, OAH. But other activities have come to fill his time. He's worked as a session musician for countless artists such as David Bowie, Tori Amos, John Legend and David Sylvian; he's played on many film soundtracks as well. Currently a large part of his time is spent actually composing for motion pictures, which he calls his true love and ambition.

One can't fail to mention Torn's simultaneous career as a recording producer, mixer and writer. His fascinating, rich mixing has deeply enhanced such modern jazz classics as Drew Gress's 2005 CD 7 Black Butterflies and Dave Douglas' Keystone (also from 2005). He has done invaluable post-recording work for his great friend and collaborator altoist/composer Tim Berne—there are so many Berne recordings that, as a result of Torn's meticulous mixing, sound great despite their hardscrabble recorded origins. Oh, and he's written a big hit for Madonna.

But it was at Berne's insistence that Torn returned to live performance. His new CD on ECM, Prezens, is an amazing recording that sounds like nothing else out there and stands up to dozens of listenings. I telephoned Torn at his Pasadena home and we spoke about, well, everything.

Pasadena, the Film World and Being Itinerant

David Torn: I wish I had my cats here. I'm currently extremely bachelorized and working really, really long hours every day for the last nine weeks.

All About Jazz: What are you working on?

DT: I'm working on a film. I've been bouncing back and forth from New York to California with no quarter on either end of the stick. I fly to New York in a hurry to do something and get back to California as fast as I can. Then, when I go back to New York, I have to be there as soon as possible, and all this gear has to move, and it's pretty daunting. And I don't have my animals here, not to mention family, which is a whole other story. But not having the animals around when you're alone is really rough, I think. I told my wife I'm going to get a big stuffed dog to put in the house [laughing].

AAJ: Right. You don't need flesh and blood; you just need fuzziness.

DT: In any case, there is a camaraderie that exists between humans and animals that is irreplaceable. I miss my animals. But I am going to go home for a day, just 24 hours, because I need to. I need warm human beings and animals around.

AAJ: Where are you now?

DT: I'm in Pasadena. I live in Pasadena now. It is a huge difference from L.A. There are very few Hollywood people out here—it's green; there are neighborhoods. My neighborhood is a walking neighborhood—you can walk around, walk to the store. And yet I can get to the studios in 15 minutes tops, and it might take me 50 minutes to get all the way to the West Side where [laughing] all the shit is happenin'!

For the people that live and work in L.A., if you say "Pasadena, you might as well say "another planet. People have very strange attitudes of place here. I have a lot of friends here, and there are a lot of people I dig here, but the whole of western Los Angeles County is colored by—I don't know what it's colored by. It's just weird. And some people really think that if you moved to Pasadena, you must not want to work anymore. But it's really close!

AAJ: Do people really think that way when it comes to hiring talent? Just how close they are?

DT: I have to say that access to meetings is, in fact, why I'm here. For years, I've been saying to this film agent or whoever, "Hey, I have a busy schedule, but if you get me a meeting with a director who is definitely worth meeting, I'll be there. Give me three to six hours notice, and I'll get on a plane and I'll be there as soon as the plane arrives. I can be there that same day or the following morning.

And it never frickin' worked. Ever! So at the end of last year, I decided I'd figure out how to do this bicoastal thing. So we moved to this place in Pasadena in March, and it all changed. I would never have gotten this meeting had I not been here, for the film I'm currently working on—which is currently driving me crazy, but that's the way the game goes. They never would have done it. "Can you meet tomorrow? "Yes. Where? "Santa Monica. 9:00 in the morning. "Yes, I'll be there. Had I been in New York, I could have easily done the same thing, so I don't know why it is—but I wouldn't have gotten the meeting. It's very strange. This film thing is a very strange business.

AAJ: And it's not like you can reason with them. You just had to move.

DT: Yes. I had to show something—my willingness to be in it. Of course, it seems that when you move to one place, you end up getting some job on the other part of the world. I think no matter what you do in music, it seems like there is bound to be some kind of strong focus on itinerancy. You will be itinerant at some point in your life, having made the commitment to be a musician, whether as a performer, a composer, whatever. You're going to be moving around a lot.

I guess I've always struggled with that, and now I have a place—my real home out East—that I will never, ever sell, unless I'm destitute or the world falls apart. And as much as I am loath to admit it, that's my home. It's hard for musicians to admit that they have a place, a geographical location. "Where are you from? "I'm from New York.

AAJ: Just having a shack somewhere that you can go and get drunk in once a year is very, very important. And the absence of that rootedness can make you crazy.

DT: Yes, and I think that modern culture sort of denies that. The amount of movement and the lack of, let's call it familial home in America, have been amplified to a greater degree than in any major civilization. If you look at the numbers of people who move for their jobs constantly and don't ever get that familial home—I know because I come from a family that never had homes. I come from itinerant stock.

My wife is a mixture of Native American peoples and some other stuff, but the Iroquois and Cherokee lines are very predominant, and she's very attached to geographical locations. I don't use the term "spiritual much, but there is something remarkably different about that. And it made me realize that there are people who actually become attached to place. It kind of blew my mind—it actually took something like 20 years of it perpetually blowing my mind before I realized that I want that too. But that's something very strange about post-European culture: We don't attach ourselves to, say, the lake we live next to.

Returning to Playing Live and to ECM

AAJ: You have a brand new recording under your own name, Prezens, which is your first on the ECM label since the 1980s. I think this is going to be my favorite record of the year, and I think it's your best album yet. This is your first since your Splattercell recording project in 2000, and the first under your own name since your solo record What Means Solid, Traveller? from 1996.

Before we talk about the music, tell me why you made your first record in many years, and how you ended up back on ECM. Was the music made for them, or did you just hand them a record you'd done and finished yourself?

DT: I made a record because [altoist/composer] Tim Berne has been busting my ass since 2000. And he and I are really, really good friends, and we spend a fair amount of working time together. We became incredibly good friends probably around '97 or '98. We don't live near each other, but we did a lot of work together and we got really tight. God bless him, he continues to bust my ass about not being a performer. For that Splattercell record [OAH, Cell Division, 2000]—when I made that record, I thought, "Okay, I'm going to try one more time to make a record that I like and see if I can maintain a relationship with a label and not get screwed.

And [laughing] it didn't really work. I didn't get as screwed as I had been in the past since I left ECM, but I have been just beleaguered by the recording, and live performing and touring things. I can't handle it. You put so much into this stuff, and touring is so hard, and I have other skills and other interests to pursue. Really, everything in America conspires against the musician, to make musicians not able to perform in their own country and not be able to sell records that are not of the mainstream—not without making sacrifices that I was no longer willing to make.

But there was Tim busting my ass, and it kind of coincided with something else that was happening a couple years into our relationship. I did a score—I'm going to cross subjects here. Around 2003, I did my first real studio picture, on my own, not as a session player, not helping somebody else out, not addending [sic] someone else's score, but doing my own. That was a film called The Order. And accidentally, [ECM label head/producer] Manfred Eicher, or someone at ECM, heard the score before the film was released. I don't know how that occurred, but it was a good several months before the film came out.

So I got a call from ECM saying Manfred had heard the score from The Order and wanted to know whom to contact to put the score out. That was a mixture of a small orchestra with some strange instruments, voices, some of my instrumentation, and electronics. He wanted to put it out as a record, but he was incapable of getting it from 20th Century-Fox, who owned the materials once they had paid for the score.
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