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David Torn's Prezens at Joe's Pub, NYC

Budd Kopman By

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David Torn and Prezens at Joe's Pub, NYC
Joe's Pub
New York City, NY
March 13, 2008

The quartet that took the stage is a live version of the group that is on prezens (ECM, 2007), which is the result of guitarist/electronics magician David Torn's post-processing of many hours of improvising by him, Tim Berne (alto saxophone), Craig Taborn (keyboards) and Tom Rainey (drums). When the chance to hear this band live presented itself, I jumped at it.

What was heard could not have been more different sonically from the previous week's offering at this venue, Nik Bartsch's Ronin, but they shared a similar aesthetic. Common to both groups is an emphasis on control of the music's design and components- -sufficient attention to the blueprint to assure a degree of certainty in the outcome. Bartsch and Ronin are much less of a purely improvisatory band than Torn's yet, even after allowing for this difference, the music of both exhibited the control and attention to organic form that marks the finest artistic endeavors.

While Torn (wearing a fluffy woodsman hat) had two guitars on stage, he stuck with one. His electronics arsenal is impressive, consisting of many, many pedals, plus two separate banks of equipment—one to his right and the other behind—that he kept adjusting. From a purely technical point of view, Torn is an impressive guitarist, using pick, finger, slides, tapping, bends, whammy bar and hand vibrato to get the sounds he desires.

The resulting music is a mix of melodic lines, harmonic textures, and pure sounds—all subject to electronic alteration that is part of each improvisatory composition. While Torn clearly leads the band, the interplay between him and the others, particularly Berne and Rainey, is what makes the music. In this set, Taborn mostly created the background sonic wash, constantly adjusting his equipment. Perhaps the house balance was off, but his contributions were not clearly heard most of the time, unless everything else dropped out, when you realized he had been there all along.

The set consisted of three "pieces," the first taking up at least half of it. The music sounded free form, without much in the way of identifiable themes, although Torn appeared to suggest a specific piece by name to Berne, who agreed to the selection before the third section began. This verbal communication would confirm that the band does have some informal structure of sounds if not themes that define the basis of each improvisation.

Berne's alto saxophone at times had the sound of crying in the wilderness, as a phrase was established through repetition while being constantly altered and growing in development. Rainey meanwhile was all ears, picking up the rhythms established by Berne and Torn, but then subtly, over time modifying them and pushing back. There was rarely a clear pulse for very long.

The music ebbed and flowed as each player came to the fore, sometimes forcibly, and took control, only to relinquish the lead to someone else. One particularly impressive section was controlled entirely by Rainey as he used soft mallets all over his set. His playing was less a conventional drum solo than a percussive sonic improvisation without the ennui drum solos can induce.

The band's full sound at times got very loud, with much electronic noise, and threatened to blow out this listener, although many in the audience seemed to revel in what at times felt like a sonic assault. However, the dynamic interplay among the musicians was fascinating both to watch and hear, providing the thread that proved to be the point of this carefully conceived music.

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