David Torn – Prezens (2007)

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by Mark Saleski

There are guitarists with “chops,” and there are guitarists with “feel.” These are not mutually exclusive categories, though the longstanding argument often revolves around the idea that a player with the former seldom has much of the latter. It’s a pointless argument, especially when there are examples that go so far out as to destroy the boundaries of the discussion.

Meet David Torn. I’m sure that Mr. Torn has chops. Plenty of feel, too, but neither of those things is all that important as the secret ingredient is ideas. Sure, you’re thinkin’, plenty of musicians have great ideas. True enough, but none of them construct music like this.

Prezens marks David Torn’s return to the ECM label after an over 20-year absence (I still can’t believe Cloud About Mercury was released so long ago!). He brings with him a powerful lineup of Tim Berne (alto sax), Tom Rainey (drums), and Craig Taborn (keys and other sonic weirdness). If the words “jazz quartet” have formed in your mind’s ears, be prepared to make a major adjustment in your thought process. And why not? That’s exactly how this record was put together. From the hours of taped collective improvisation, Torn split, chopped, rearranged, enhanced, and reconstructed the parts to product an album that’s both otherworldly and organic.

“Ak” fades in with a piano arpeggio the quickly dissolves into the distance, only to be replaced by a dark and spooky guitar figure. Taborn slides a bluesy B3-ish keyboard line in that sets the mood for the next several minutes. A call & response begins to form between Berne and Taborn, a sort of out-there trading of fours. When the intensity reaches its apex, Torn flings into some theremin-like guitar squall just before the whole band explodes into a metal-infused vamp. Totally unexpected, and just as quickly as that wall of sound appeared … it’s gone.

The song finishes out with a short return to group interplay, capped off with a long sax note that echoes into the background. Clocking in at a little over nine minutes, “Ak” has more ideas than many full length recordings.

Ah, but let’s move away from track analysis and talk about the library of David Torn guitar sounds. From perfect, cleanly-picked notes (“Rest & unrest”), to buzzy angularity (“Bulbs”), to nearly harmolodic line generation (check out the intertwined sax/guitar figures on “Neck-deep in the harrow”), to warped surf vibe (“Ring for endless travel”), it’s clear that Torn’s well of ideas is a deep one. Chops? Feel? No: ideas.

For the improvised music neophyte, Prezens might be too much to handle. The combination of ambient approach and seemingly unstructured music will cause the hasty ear to lose interest. Please, resist that urge to listen elsewhere. Let the ideas wash over you.

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