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


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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].
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