Around four minutes into "AK," the first track on
's new CD "Prezens," a typically tense, knotty
alto saxophone solo suddenly begins to stutter, then pans from speaker to speaker before scurrying completely away.
It sounds a bit like a glitch, albeit a perfectly timed and executed one, as if the machines that Berne is playing through have decided they can improve on the music they're supposed to merely channel.
But this is no time to start fearing some "Terminator"-style computer takeover; that digital imagination belongs to Torn.
Over a 30-year-plus career, Torn's technologically minded approach to his guitar playing and production techniques has found him collaborating with some of the most forward-thinking minds in a variety of musical genres, from David Bowie to k.d. lang to Jeff Beck to Tori Amos.
He first came to prominence in the mid-'70s when he hooked up with Lou Reed's backing group the Everyman Band. Later, he joined Norwegian fusion saxophonist Jan Garbarek, in whose band he began employing live sampling techniques that allowed him to reprocess and loop the music being played around him in real time.
He also has had an extensive career in film music, whether composing his own scores ("Friday Night Lights," "The Order") or contributing to other composers' work ("The Departed," "March of the Penguins," "Traffic").
Torn has recorded intermittently over the past decade, as the behind-the-scenes roles of film composer and producer have dominated his time. It was at Berne's insistence that he returned to active playing, forming a quartet that he describes as "what would happen if a non-two-chord rock jam band with at least three virtuosic players in it decided to marry itself to Future Sound of London."
Besides Berne, that group includes keyboardist Craig Taborn and drummer Tom Rainey. Together, they are three of the most inventive players in modern jazz.
In the studio, the quartet laid down six to eight hours of improvisations. "I took a very laborious process of choosing which of that live material would be used," Torn explained, "which was probably the biggest part of my work. It really was daunting."
From there, Torn retooled and remixed, adding a few tracks of himself solo on guitar and electronics. The result is a techno-jazz suite that feels as complete and narrative as any film soundtrack.
"I suppose that it's pretty impractical and out of fashion to create an album of music that is a single, entire work at this point in time," Torn mused, "and yet that's exactly what I did. I wanted to get a sense of arc and flow like you do when you're creating a film score. I couldn't really help trying to tell a big story."
Torn says the "Prezens" band is "a lot wilder" live.
(In Philly, the band will add another longtime Berne collaborator, bassist Michael Formanek, who will also perform his duo piece "The Offbeat Manifesto" with the saxophonist.)
"Every gig is like a journey, and I don't ever feel from the band that there's any kind of that self-serving, masturbatory playing," Torn said.
"Every improvising band has moments. This band not only has moments, it has a background character and vibe to it that predominates over the moment-to-moment steps on the journey."
"Prezens" transforms the character of Torn's collaborators and the distinctive voice that the trio has developed over the years. That's a testament to the leader's overarching vision, though he insists that the band's identity is well-represented in unaltered ways throughout the record.
"I suppose the non-idiomatic resonances between the players, the fact that we all appreciate many kinds of music, helps inform the shapeliness of the improvs," Torn said.
The problem with such a radical rethinking, as always, is knowing what to call it. Torn has faced this problem throughout his career.
"This album is on the jazz charts," he said with an audible shrug, "but if I was talking to a jazz listener, I'd probably say you might not want to come hear this band because this ain't jazz - at least as far as the standard Joe or Josephine on the street might think of it. It's quite an odd blend."
Torn realizes that his current band has a limited tenure due to the outside demands on all involved, him most of all. But that's an advantage, he said.
"I always think to myself, 'This is my last record. I'm not doing this anymore.' Records don't sell, people steal them, record companies fall apart, artists get screwed - and I applied pretty much the same attitude to this one.
"I honestly believe that you should make a recording as if it's the last one you're going to make. I actually can't help it." *
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