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


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AAJ: Well, I want to see the band badly, but don't anticipate seeing you in Chicago immediately.

DT: Well, we'll see. Because all of a sudden, we're getting all these offers to play. And I'm taking them, regardless of the fact that my schedule is completely out of control.

AAJ: Well, I feel like a big dummy, thinking there was more manipulation of the tracks after the fact than there was.

DT: There's always manipulation in my case. But the only thing I can really say is there's manipulation going on live in the room. The stress point for me is that when I did manipulate it, I still completely respected the integrity of what the band played and when it occurred. So there's not a lot of Teo Macero-style cutting going on. I'm not cutting sections into other sections.

I did make it so that there's one piece where it's obvious that I've cut something that the band played: "Bulbs. And you can hear exactly what the band played, and in retrospect, I think that if you know anything about studio technologies and sampling technologies, you'll probably realize that I did, in fact, make the loop out of the whole band playing that thing. It's the whole band and it's what we played, but I ended up making a tune out of a loop because it sounded cool to me—for no other reason. And then the piece morphs into something that I wrote in the studio later. And again, I used Tom's warm-up drum kit [laughing] to play the drums at the end.

But I could never stop doubting myself that I did this, rather than just make a live document of the band—which exists. There is a finished live record. I was tearing my hair out, thinking I was just going to send Manfred the live record. But I felt I had to serve my own purposes just a little bit more, and show a music that is not a live band per se. Recordings are different these days, and Tim makes an awful lot of live records. And Tim himself said to me, "Nah, nah, we'll do the live record later. "But it's finished already, Tim, and I could work a lot less hard!

Tim Berne is Really Great

AAJ: Everyone needs to listen to Tim Berne because that guy embodies common sense.

DT: It's more than that. It's aesthetics and persistence—and aesthetic persistence. Without sounding like we're secretly lovers—which we're not—I could not say enough good things about Tim and the effect he's had on me and my life these last ten years. I think as a composer, as a guy with a vision, I very, very rarely run into someone like this, who's just got this unassailable fucking integrity. And I've been accused of having integrity in my life, and I'm looking at Tim and thinking, "I've never met anybody like this, with the balls he has to do what he has continued to do and pursue on his own. In a commercially prohibitive environment, what he does and achieves—really, I have never met anybody like Tim. I hate to sound like I'm going too far, waxing too poetic, but it's true.

AAJ: You don't have to worry about going too far, because I am at this very moment wearing a Screwgun Records [Berne's label] t-shirt.

DT: Oh [laughing], okay. There is no one like him in the world. Not only that, but Tim has had more effect on music than people will realize for quite some time. Which is really sad. Look, his band is my band. It's different. And how many other people share that band? How many other people have shared his other bands? Let's take it back to Miniature [Berne's cooperative 1980's trio with drummer Joey Baron and cellist Hank Roberts] or before that. This is a guy who committed himself a long time ago to the things he believes in and never dropped the commitment. Regardless of the fact that he, once upon a time, made the mistake [laughing] of signing to a major label.

AAJ: Well, he may not be as appreciated as he should be. And I've only spoken to him once, when I interviewed him, but if anyone should be sad about him not being fully appreciated, it should be Tim Berne—and I've never gotten the impression that he feels badly at all about any of that.

DT: I kind of think that—and this is always true about people with integrity—the only thing you can hold on to is your integrity. And I'm not using the word "integrity lightly; I mean it in a life sense, in the sense that it requires an internal commitment that must express itself externally. And I think that that, and all those moments of music, are what makes a guy like Tim able to hold on to it and just proceed. The motherfucker just proceeds. Remember that stupid phrase, "Keep on keepin' on?

AAJ: "The dude abides, like in The Big Lebowski.

DT: That's it exactly—the dude abides. I couldn't say enough about the effect that having a relationship and a friendship with Tim has had on me and what it's meant to me. And it came out of the blue. We were working in very, very disparate worlds, although we had a connection, because I have so pursued the art of improvisation in non-improvisational settings for my entire life.

AAJ: Well, you know who told me about you?

DT: No.

AAJ: Tim Berne. I'm embarrassed to admit it, but I didn't know your work and hadn't heard of it. So when I interviewed Tim over a year ago, I just asked about you as a person who had done sonic work on his records. And Tim said, "Don't you know he's made records of his own? He was on ECM. He encouraged me to check you out.

DT: I made at least one good record for ECM. And see, there's another good example of Tim Berne showing up. He had an effect on you, and you checked out the material. And who else in that world would really care about me? I can't say I was ever rejected by the jazz world, because I definitely danced with it. Well, that's a bad word, because Tim is not really a jazz musician.

AAJ: Well, he plays an alto. He improvises.

DT: Right. He connects to that world, at least on the face of it, a little more than I do. I've probably [laughing] played a lot more changes in my life than Tim has! Because I don't think he really enjoys that world, and I spent quite a few years attempting to do that.

AAJ: It's interesting that you say you danced with the jazz world. I think if you'd wanted to, you would be one of those guys. You were on ECM. You played on a Jan Garbarek record. You were starting to work with those people—not that the ECM musicians are by any means traditional jazz players.

DT: No, most of the old guard of ECM were precisely not that. They were connected to it, but not of it. Conference of the Birds [the 1973 ECM Dave Holland Quartet recording]—was that a jazz record? I don't know.

But I danced with that world like I danced with every idiomatic world, and it never, ever works. When I've tried really hard to connect with only one world, I end up fucking it up somehow. 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. And when I say "danced with the jazz world, I'm not isolating that. I danced with the rock world too, and yet I'm not a rock player. And the only reason I bring it up is that there are rock players, and there are jazz players—and I'm not one of them [laughing]. I cannot achieve a particular idiomatic style with any sense of professionalism.

Bruford Levin Upper Extremities

AAJ: Well, you can do it for a month or two, can't you? You were on tour with Bruford Levin Upper Extremities not too many years ago [the quartet with drummer Bill Bruford, bassist/Chapman Stick player Tony Levin, and trumpeter Chris Botti]. That was an idiom of sorts. You did the shows.

DT: Well, did you hear what I did with them? It was an interesting band. That was like Cloud About Mercury [Torn's 1987 ECM recording with Bruford, Levin and trumpeter Mark Isham ] for me, only with Chris playing trumpet—the live shows especially. Not so much that first studio record [Bruford Levin Upper Extremities, Papa Bear Records, 1998]. I don't not like that record, but the band live was really a beast.

AAJ: I like the live record [Blue Nights/Live, Discipline Global Media, 2000].

DT: Me too. I prefer the live record. But anyway, what was happening in there? I don't know. Was I playing rock or jazz? I definitely wasn't playing fusion! I wasn't sampling anybody else except me and some tape recorders I had on stage. That was more about a really intense rhythm section. And there was always one moment of pure improv every night, and it was fantastic. I thought, "This is the beginning of something that I like a lot. I loved that moment of getting up on a stage in front of people and being forced into a situation of having to trust your friends, the other musicians, and to trust the moment and your own instincts. And damn the torpedoes—whatever happens happens.

There were strong elements in the band that did not really respond to that as a crowd-pleasing event [laughing].

AAJ: Was that band burdened by the audience's expectations? Were there people yelling out for King Crimson or Yes tunes? Were they willing to listen to improvs?

DT: The audience was pretty open. As the guitarist in that band, it was tiresome to talk to everybody after the show. First of all, the audience was all boys. There's something wrong with that, I have to say. For this band now, the Prezens band, the only gig we've had where the audience was predominantly male was this big gig we did in New York at Joe's Pub, because we were out of our element in a bigger club, and there was a lot of press. The guys from Guitar Player came out, so it was kind of weird. There's something very unnatural—and I've had a lot of this in my life—about looking out at an audience and knowing that not only is there a predominance of males there, which looks really strange, but that more than half of them are not listening, because they're paying attention to the details of what you're doing.

AAJ: Right. "Dude, check out that hammer-on.

DT: Or, "How did he do that? Or in my case, it's usually, "Why did he do that? Or, "Man, I just wish he would play some fuckin' guitar!

But the Bruford Levin band had a remarkable success and should, by all natural means, have stayed alive. The band was getting looser and looser, and boy, was I enjoying that. And the crowds did not diminish; they were only growing. I can tell you, I've never seen a success like that in the States with a small touring band. We were actually moving around the country and the shows were sold out everywhere, or close to everywhere. We were a band that actually had merchandise to sell, and we sold it.

And I did not want it to end. I was not one of those who thought that it should stop. In fact, I didn't understand at all when it stopped, precisely because I thought, "Wow, this is getting to be really fun! And we're making a decent living, and it's pretty easy to travel with your friends. Although I guess that, cameraderie-wise, Chris was coming from a different place and thinking about having this very successful smooth jazz career at the same time he was doing the B.L.U.E. band— which he went on to do, of course. He's got a very successful smooth jazz career. And yet he really never wanted this band to end, because it was his chance to play—to just blow and be in a really strange musical environment.

Anyway, I was actually quite shocked when that band ended. All I could think was, "Why? Why aren't we continuing?
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