David Torn: only sky

John Kelman BY

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David Torn: only sky
Despite a career that now goes back over three decades, the relative infrequency of releases from guitarist and sound sculptor David Torn renders any new one, at the very least, a cause for speculation...if not enthusiastic anticipation. Beyond the soundtracks that have become one piece of the puzzle that defines who Torn is—and acting as engineer and/or producer for fellow unfettered explorers like saxophonist Tim Berne on albums including Shadow Man (ECM, 2013) as another—Torn was last heard on a curiously constructed improvised set with bassist Tony Levin (King Crimson, Peter Gabriel) and drummer Allan White (Yes) on the unassumingly titled Levin Torn White (Lazy Bones, 2007).

But it was Torn's own Prezens—the guitarist's first album as a leader for ECM in 20 years, and a complete anomaly in his catalog, peopled by a group that included, in addition to Berne, keyboardist Craig Taborn and drummer Tom Rainey...essentially reconvening the saxophonist's Hard Cell group from Hard Cell Live (Screwgun, 2004) but, with the addition of Torn, making it a quartet—that turned out to be both the most fearless and best group of the guitarist's career...and one of the nicest surprises of 2007.

While there are those who pine for Prezens, Volume Two, those who know Torn also know that repetition simply isn't part of his vocabulary. So, if it's cause for celebration that the guitarist has released only sky a mere eight years after Prezens, it's also cause for celebration that, rather than repeating himself with a second instalment from a band that, no doubt, would have been very, very good, Torn has chosen to go it alone and almost entirely in spontaneous real-time: just one man, one guitar, one electric oud and a bevy of effects—so much so that, in a Facebook conversation, Torn explained "what little bits which were not performed in the original real-time are so small as to be, 'should I really even mention this?' afterthoughts. I think there are three or four of these teensy itty-bits, and that's it."

It's an album that is, on one hand, beautiful in a curiously alien way and, on the other, as jagged and extreme as Torn has ever been.

Having first shown up on ECM with Everyman Band—a quartet largely consisting of Lou Reed alum that released two albums including its eponymous 1982 debut (still criminally unavailable on CD and hard to find on vinyl) and 1985 follow-up Without Warning (which has been released on CD)—it was Torn's appearance on Norwegian saxophonist Jan Garbarek on 1985's It's Ok To Listen To The Gray Voice that really got the guitarist some well-deserved attention in the jazz world. That he replaced Bill Frisell in Garbarek's group—and that he was similarly effects-heavy, quirky in his approach to constructing melodies and heavily reliant on a volume pedal to create lines lacking in his instrument's usual attack—meant that there were many unfair comparisons to the rapidly ascending Frisell. Still, it didn't take long for Torn to assert his own personality on his own ECM dates: 1985's Best Laid Plans (a duo record with percussionist Geoffrey Gordon) and 1987's far more impressive Cloud About Mercury, a quartet record with Tony Levin (restricting himself to Chapman Stick and synth bass), the bassist's King Crimson partner, Bill Bruford, largely focusing on a variety of electronic drums, and trumpeter Mark Isham.

Cloud About Mercury also became Torn's first album to achieve "classic" status, well before the usual time required to assess one as such had passed. But it was a well-deserved critical and popular achievement, especially amongst the progressive rock community, and helped kickstart both his career and a reputation that, given the diminutive size of his discography as a leader, truly always seems to precede him...but with absolute justification. There is, quite simply, no other guitarist that sounds like Torn, even if Torn's distinctive sound is a strange amalgam of everything from Frisellian Americana concerns to overdriven, whammy bar-driven, feedback-laden excursions of Jimi Hendrix-like proportions. Beyond all the usual suspects, Torn has long incorporated concepts from other cultures as well, whether it's in the snaky manner that he constructs Middle Eastern-informed phrases or his ability to use a whammy bar to create sonics that so resemble a human voice that the only other guitarist who can match him in this regard is Jeff Beck.

But Beck's contexts are far more conventional. only sky's nine original, real-time spontaneous compositions were created with, as the guitarist explains, "just my instrument and multiple looping devices, with some favorite fuzzboxes." Another important contribution to the sound of some of only sky's pieces is the sound of the room in which they were recorded: the Experimental Media and Performance Arts Center (EMPAC), in Troy, New York. Not unlike the Vigeland Mausoleum in Oslo, Norway—where artists like Arve Henriksen and Stian Westerhus have taken advantage of the room's marvelous 20-second delay characteristic—the EMPAC'S high ceiling and acoustics that are, in Torn's words, "pillowy but pithy at the same time," contribute another inspirational factor in the spontaneous compositional approach Torn employed for this record.

Still, none of these characteristics pigeonhole only sky's music, which ranges from the Americana-tinged "spoke with folks" and its unmistakable "Shenandoah" reference, to the opening "at least there was nothing," where Torn adds an electric oud to the soundscape for a journey farther east. The open-ended ambiguity of the title track provides Torn the opportunity to create cushions of dense sound over which the guitarist layers serpentine lines, ultimately resolving into a series of chords that shift the feel briefly, before closing the nine-minute excursion with the same enigmatic, Middle Eastern underpinning as its genesis.

For those who question Torn's harmonic sophistication, one listen to the closing "a goddamned specific unbalance" should resolve any doubts. Just as listening to the Frisell of Nashville (Nonesuch, 1987) provides little to suggest the more complex Frisell of, say, This Land (Nonesuch, 1994)—or, for that matter, his quarter century-plus trio with drummer Paul Motian and Joe Lovano—so, too, does trying to categorize Torn based on any one recording provide the guitarist the broad-scoped credibility that he deserves.

Still—and despite this being a solo record—only sky may come the closest to delivering the whole package when it comes to defining what David Torn is all about.

Solo recordings are always a dicey proposition; naked, with nobody to hide behind, the artist's work is laid bare for all to hear. But given that only sky is, according to Torn, "the closest to capturing what I do alone with a guitar at home," it most accurately approaches who Torn is when he's unbound by the constraints that most projects, if even inadvertently, impose. The result is a record that is his most idiomatic and individualized. Sonically it's an expansive record that's the antithesis of the traditional solo guitar record—not unlike label mate Eivind Aarset's similarly superb but far more considered Dream Logic (2012)—and for those looking to find clear form amidst the swirling clouds, elliptical phrases and chiming chordal passages, there will be plenty to challenge them. Still, everything from harsh angularity to unabashed beauty can be found on only sky, yet another album which suggests that it's those Torn makes for ECM that are invariably his best—and, in this case, his most personal, too.

Track Listing

at least there was nothing; spoke with folks; ok, shorty; was a cave, there...; reaching barely, sparely fraught; I could almost see the room; only sky; so much what; a goddamned specific unbalance.


David Torn: guitar, electric oud.

Album information

Title: only sky | Year Released: 2015 | Record Label: ECM Records

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