David Torn – Only Sky (2015)

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David Torn has described himself as a “texturalist,” which is precisely the role he takes on every time he straps on a guitar, hits a pedal and twists some knobs. He’s applied himself in that role with vigor and uncommon instinct whether he’s in a group, creating a movie soundtrack or leading in his own recording projects.

The latter part — making his own records — is something he hadn’t addressed since his widely acclaimed Prezens project with Tim Berne, Craig Taborn and Tom Rainey. That was some eight years ago. Today, he returns with his second release for ECM Records since returning to the label for that quartet record that set a new standard by perfecting the balance between the improvisational and Torn’s electronically-enhanced studio wizardry, becoming a shining display of two worlds that were never meant to be mashed together. Only Sky (May 5, 2015) contrasts from Prezens only in one important way: Berne, Taborn and Rainey are gone, leaving Torn entirely to his own devices (yeah, pun intended).

I state “only” with intent: it’s not difficult at all to imagine Sky as another Prezens but with the sax, keyboard and drums tracks removed. What’s left is hardly insubstantial. Torn weaves together immersive sonic backdrops with relaxed fingerpicking and caustic phrases, removing any pretense of trying to play a style and obsessed instead with evoking a mood. as he’s capable of doing this on the fly, nothing about it appears overwrought, premeditated. Ambient washes of varying intensity greet us on the opener “At Least There Was Nothing”, where the song itself might be extemporaneous, but the only evidence of human instrument playing comes from a brief electric oud passage. The visuals these sounds can conjure up so readily is a remindful of Torn’s skill as a film composer.

“Was A Cave, There…” traverses over even more terrain over the course of this long track. Fringe experimental is the first order of business where Torn makes his guitar emit metal riffs and a spacey, vintage Moog. As he does throughout much of the album, he introduces a hypnotic looped pattern that in this instance mimics a classical orchestra maneuver, but over time gets increasingly industrial. On the other end of his wide spectrum, a pretty folk melody shapes “Spoke With Folks” that covers a lot of the same ground as Bill Frisell Arpeggiated chords are played like an acoustic guitar but with fascinating echo, delay and loop effects applied, and Torn masterfully manipulates these enhancements to expose the beauty of the strain as well as its darker side.

Loops form the basic theme for “Reaching Barely, Sparely Fraught” and “I Could Almost See The Room,” the latter’s hypnotic lull constantly broken up by Torn’s acerbic, drawn out notes. Over a barely-heard loop, he wrings genuine emotion on the ethereal “Only Sky,” and the slowly played chords resonate and hang in the air forever.

For the first half “A Goddamned Specific Unbalance” Torn plays solo guitar largely effects free while retaining his singular vocabulary, flashing bits of blues, jazz and Middle Eastern music forms into that vocabulary. The fx asserts dominance over the second half, washing out with last few plucks of an oud.

A solo performance record if done with the right conviction can give listeners the chance to hear the performer in his or her purest form. Torn takes this opportunity of his first solo performance record to go further and provide the chance to peer into his very soul. Only Sky doesn’t reveal new areas of Torn’s genius so much as it confirms the genius that’s present on all his previous albums when he was working in the company of others. Taking away everyone else doesn’t diminish the artistry of his works; it magnifies it.

See David Torn perform an upcoming show at these venues (click on nested links for more info):

May 8 – New York, NY at Subculture

May 10 – Hamden, CT at The Ballroom at The Outer Space

May 11 – Marlboro, NY at The Falcon

May 12 – Dunellen, NJ at NJ Proghouse @ Roxy & Dukes

May 13 – Cambridge, MA at Regattabar

May 14 – Philadelphia, PA at Philadelphia Art Alliance

May 16 – Portland, OR at Holocene

May 17-18 – Seattle, WA at Storyville (Pike Place)

May 19 – San Francisco, CA at Slim’s

May 20 – Sacramento, CA at Gold Lion Arts

May 21 – Los Angeles, CA at Blue Whale

May 22 – Denver, CO at Walnut Room

May 26 – Minneapolis, MN at Cedar Cultural Center

May 27 – Milwaukee, WI at The Jazz Estate

May 29 – Chicago, IL at Constellation

May 30 – Cincinnati, OH at The Monastery

And the brown paper tickets link: http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/1423084

May 31 – Pittsburgh, PA at CLUB CAFÉ

June 1 – Washington DC at Union Arts

June 3 – Baltimore, MD at The Windup Space

June 4 – Carrboro, NC at Cat’s Cradle

June 6 – Asheville, NC at Streamside Concerts (this will be Facebook only – don’t look for link)

June 7 – Atlanta, GA at Red Light Café

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron is an SQL demon for a Fortune 100 company by day, music opinion-maker at night. His musings are strewn out across the interwebs on jazz.com, AllAboutJazz.com, a football discussion board and some inchoate customer reviews of records from the late 1990s on Amazon under a pseudonym that will never be revealed. E-mail him at svaaron@somethingelsereviews .com or follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SVictorAaron
S. Victor Aaron
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