When it came time to decide which CDs to include in my starters and alternates lists, there was a lot of agonizing over many of the choices. But my top choice came early and easily. In fact, it was all but determined by the end of May, after I listened to David Torn's Prezens a few times.
Unless you delve in the underground genre of experimental rock-jazz guitar, David Torn won't be a household name to you. But with his extensive work as film composer, producer and sideman, his handiwork has likely reached your ears at some point. Whether scoring movies like Friday Night Lights, sessioning for artists such as k.d. lang, adding guitar loops for David Bowie or producing for the likes of Bill Bruford's Earthworks, Torn has put his fingerprints on a lot of major projects from relative obscurity.
Projects like these leave little time for making his own records and Prezens officially marks his first solo album since 1996's What Means Solid, Traveller?, although the two SPLaTTeRCeLL albums at the turn of the millennium are essentially Torn-led projects. It's also his return to the ECM label since his avant-fusion masterpiece Cloud About Mercury from twenty years ago.
Those who have patiently followed Torn all those years will find a lot of his hallmarks in Prezens: an ambient personality clashing with his heavy-metal
side, a propensity to jam at war with his inclination to carefully construct compositions, and most of all, the imaginative textures he processes into the tracks.
At the same time, it's a big leap in Torn's evolving style. While Mercury pioneered combining the artificially created atmospherics of Brian Eno with a harder edge, the songs had a conventional progression to them. 1995's Tripping Over God incorporated more non-Western song structures, particularly East Indian. Prezens, however, retains some modality but otherwise abandons any perceivable framework in his songs. One could even say they are not really songs, but rather, collections of irregular shapes and forms.
As such, it's meant to jolt the listener out of comfort zones and long-held notions of how music is supposed to be played. There are plenty of nods to styles ranging from blues to ambient to heavy metal to Middle Eastern, but the music dwells in none of the places it references. The compositions are all very asymmetrical, but they probably weren't necessarily conceived that way.
And why is that so?
Because the album was constructed much the same way Bill Frisell's Floratone was put together. That is, the basic tracks of improvised performances were recorded performed live in the studio. Then, these tapes were later dubbed, looped and remixed, resulting in a Frankenstein of organic and synthetic music. Only here the basic tracks are laid down by an entire quartet extemporaneously playing together, i.e., collective improvisation. And Torn, who is responsible for all the post-human twiddling, brings to bear his considerable experience as a film composer, producer and sideman. It's group playing shaped into one man's vision.
The group itself provides a key reason for why this formula works: Tim Berne (saxophone), Craig Taborn (keyboards) and Tom Rainey (drums). These guys are all not only reigning masters of improvised music, but have played together with and without Torn for a number of years. The chemistry needed to pull off those basic tracks was already established long before.
Even with all that going for it, following this template doesn't guarantee the record is going to be any good; risk-taking implies the real chance for failure, after all. Prezens works because Torn is pitching perfectly timed curveballs at every opportunity. The songs zigs where you expect it to zag. He creates ambient structures and then tears them down, sometimes in dramatic fashion, long before they get too rote. And Torn does all this while often remaining tuneful.
Take the opening track "AK." Its beginning statement is made a with a looped sample drenched in reverb before Torn introduces the song's key on a softly-played electric guitar. Meanwhile, Taborn provides some blues-heavy figures from a Hammond B-3 organ and Berne blurts out some smears from his sax as Rainey's stuttered drumming is taken in and out of the mix and some odd, electronic sounds are randomly thrown in. Slowly, a riff emerges out of Berne and a gradual build up ensues. The riff culminates in the drums' full participation and Torn's crunching axe playing the riff in unison. After a few rounds at full bore the band backs out except for Taborn's organ noodling and Torn's atmospherics before Berne plays subdued notes to take the tune out as gently as it began.
The semi-title song "The Structural Function Of Prezens" employs an even more unpredictable tact, as explained in a past One Track Mind. "Bulbs" has a clamorous false start which dies off before a chord progression is introduced that at times sounds like jungle funk-era Miles. Similarly, "Neck-Deep In the Harrow" has a "On The Corner" aesthetic to it in the contentious middle section where Taborn and Torn trade fours.
"Them Buried Standing" is a brief, bizarre samba. "Sink" features Berne's all-out skronking in a inspired mash-up of electronica and free jazz. "Transmit Regardless" finds Berne and Torn simul-soloing with Rainey's seriously funky beat churning underneath.
There's much more going on with these tracks than I've bothered to describe, however, but it would take up too much space to even skim over all the nuances found in each of them. And that's part of the beauty of them; a casual listen picks up the mixed-in markers that Torn uses to set up each segment of the songs but more intense listening reveals the tight interaction of those core recordings.
Everyone has different opinions on what makes a great record. The ones I chose as my favorites for this year I thought were good for widely different reasons. But a record that challenges my preconceptions, is played with a high level of creativity and reveals more of itself each time I listen to it is the kind of record I put in a special category. For 2007, David Torn's Prezens fits that criteria the best.
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