ECM power trio David Torn, Tim Berne and Ches Smith reconvene on excellent new album
Artist: David Torn/Tim Berne/Ches Smith
Album: Sun of Goldfinger
★★★★ (4/5 stars)
Guitarist David Torn, alto saxophonist Tim Berne and percussionist Ches Smith are three musicians who have never been satisfied with doing things the conventional way. Though capable of shredding with the best of them, Torn has long used his axe as much as a controller for pedals, electronics and loops as he has an instrument with strings and pickups. Berne consistently pushes his writing and playing into realms not only far beyond the avant-garde postbop of the eighties downtown scene from which he sprang, but sometimes beyond what’s normally regarded as free jazz. Smith simply occupies his own space in the drumming universe, playing around, over, under and beside the beat more often than on it, and augmenting himself with live looping. So it’s no surprise that when these three convene, something unusual happens.
Vanguard track “Eye Meddle” serves as the opening remarks of what turns out to be a special event. Torn loops notes and chords into pure atmosphere, eschewing melody at first for a shimmering backdrop of ghost matter. Smith adds his own electronically-enhanced pulse, pushing and pulling the rhythm so that it never stays in one place for long. Berne simply blows over the top of the turbulence, like a surfer riding a tidal wave. Nearly twelve minutes into the twenty-four minute piece, Berne starts recognizably riffing, Smith hits an actual groove and Torn calls down the storm, looping in a menacing rumble and cutting through the clouds with distorted legato drills. Inspired by his longtime pal’s controlled savagery, the saxophonist again lets loose, squealing, squonking and rumbling like the spirit of the not-yet dead Peter Brötzmann. Finding a circular riff, Berne leads his compadres out of the tempest, letting the clouds part, the rain shift from sheets to droplets, and the sun shine through. Recorded with no prepared composition, “Eye Meddle” is a tour de force of telepathic improvisation.
“Soften the Blow” springs from the same well of spontaneity. Berne kicks it off with a circular sax squeal, as Torn strums chords and loops his comrade’s blowing into a tapestry of harmonized horn screeches. The guitarist keeps the electronic weirdness coming, allowing the saxist ample time to kick up more dust, while Smith lays back except for the occasional thumping flourish. When the drummer gives the song more forward momentum by treating his kit in a more traditional manner, his bandmates wail away, Torn alternating between smoky ambience and imitation of Berne’s sustained squawk. Smith continues keeping the pulse steady to let Berne and Torn shred. Halfway through the chaos starts to fray at its edges; the players make a half-hearted attempt to keep it together before abandoning the attempt and going into free jazz mode – a situation with which everyone is comfortable. Sax and ax duel to the death, goaded by drums. Berne seems to win, ending the track with triumphant, if exhausted, bleats, as guitar ambience and percussion fade into the distance.
The centerpiece of the album, “Spartan, Before It Hit” breaks protocol by being an actual structured piece, written by Torn. The Goldfinger trio is also joined by guests, including keyboardist Craig Taborn, guitarists Ryan Ferreira and Mike Baggetta and string players Scorchio Quartet. Drawing on Torn’s day job as a film composer, the piece incorporates melody more overtly than the improvised pieces, while still staying well away from anything one might call a hook. The strings occupy the space in which the electronica sits in the other songs, allowing Torn to be more forceful in his playing and Smith to ride a steady pulse. Berne begins his approach by adding a textural swell underneath the strings, before beginning to blow freely. Taborn adds piano chords here and there, helping set the scene for a blowout at the eight-minute mark. When everybody pulls back, it’s only to raise the threat factor, with the guitarists building a wall of thorns, Taborn and Smith stabbing at their instruments at will and Berne honing a corkscrew screech. By fourteen minutes in, the song has become a giant wall of hum, with only the strings to alleviate the tension – if it was a film, you’d expect an explosion at any moment. The piece settles down after that, with sustained guitar and saxophone lines stretching the melody into a dark ambience that deals with the aftermath of whatever violence has just occurred. Though a written piece, “Spartan, Before It Hit” works the same balance of chaos and order as the improvised cuts.
Having been in existence since 2010, Sun of Goldfinger already has enough concerts and tours behind it for the three artists to feel comfortable in each other’s skin. In this case, familiarity definitely does not breed contempt. Sun of Goldfinger is a masterpiece of spontaneous collaboration.