David Torn, Tim Berne, Ches Smith – Sun of Goldfinger [ECM 2019]

David Torn, Tim Berne, Ches Smith – Sun of Goldfinger [ECM 2019]

Mar 7, 2019 0 By Marcello Nardi

Italian version

Among the countless facts surrounding Miles Davis‘s relationships with musicians he played with, there’s one told by John Scofield I love. The guitarist, who played in Davis‘s comeback band in the early 80s, remembers what happened when the trumpeter sat at keyboards during his shows. He loved to play a single dissonant note for an unexpectedly long time, while the rest of the band was in a different tonality. He used to play an A on a Bb blues, just to create a dissonance -recounts Scofield in an interview. He liked the synth -he had a different idea each day-, but he just did it to bother you. I think he liked the uncertainty. Well, it’s not clear if he did that to undermine our playing or just to create the mood, or maybe to knock us out. It’s all these things, and you can’t get captured. It’s fascinating, it pushes you to think forward. I never knew what he was doing1. It resonated to me when reading quotes by guitarist 

David Torn and sax player Tim Berne about their upcoming ECM release, in a trio completed by drummer Ches Smith, as they both mentioned a feeling of being outside of their comfort zones as the fertile ground for this recording, similarly to what Miles wanted (who really knows?) to do with his musicians. This ground fertilizes a mixture of alien guitar loops, wails by the alto sax and percussion soundscapes that swirl in prolonged and hypnotic improvisations. Sun of Goldfinger is an artwork of outside playing, where outside has no connection with harmonic concepts, but, instead, hints at creating a zone of discomfort, capable of eliciting the musicians to explore new boundaries in their playing.

Sun of Goldfinger‘s debut reached nearly the hype status of a new Tool album, getting to be released in 2019 after they started playing together nine years ago. Since David Torn published Prezens on ECM in 2007 -a record that included Tim Berne as well-, the two started bouncing back and forth with the idea of playing together. I was pushed out of the cave slowly, steadily and increasingly vocally by Tim Berne -said Torn in an interview with Anil Prasad in 2009. He relentlessly invited me to play with his bands. I told him I only wanted to do gigs that were completely improvised because the other parts of my career at this point, particularly film music, are focused on composing and organizing music. Their collaboration dates back at the 90s, when Tim Berne, a musician who produced most of his career’s outputs via his own labels, hired Torn‘s abilities with mastering. David Torn is widely recognized as a one-of-a-kind musician, equipped with a unique sound and a span of collaborations that in forty years of career range from Don Cherry to David Bowie, Jan Garbarek, David Sylvian, Tori Amos just to pick a few randomly. Like no one else before, he has harnessed a capability to create an organic sound through a myriad of electronic devices filtrating his guitar. Working often on the edge between genres, often dedicating time to produce others’ works or to create soundtracks, he has developed a synthesis of looping and raw sounds that has reached its peak with the 2015′ ECM release only sky.

Another release plays an important role behind Sun of Goldfinger: it’s the 2012 Snakeoil, a record that marked Tim Berne officially joining ECM label with a completely new line-up. And Snakeoil band is also first time he recorded with young drummer Ches Smith. Similarly to Torn, Tim Berne is regarded as a master of his instrument and a pivotal player in last four decades of jazz avantgarde. He concentrated since the very start with developing his own music realm, more than playing others’, focusing on timbre exploration that, together with a distinctive conception of rhytmic cycles, makes his music often obsessive and aggressive. While Sun of Goldfinger -the trio was known with this name since the very start- concentrated only on touring, fanbase got interested about a potential recording thanks to some performances available on YouTube. Those videos pictured three musicians adventuring in a free-form area packed with electronics gimmicks, shrilling eeriness, clouding atmospheres and tribal thrust. It was intriguing from the start, as per Torn‘s words in the press release. I’ve had a close friendship and deep musical relationship with Tim since the ’90s, and playing live with him is always special – we push each other into new territory. And that drummer turned out to be Ches, and I thought he was really something, just burning.

The Sun of Goldfinger recording seems a step forward in comparison to what Sun of Goldfinger trio produced in the live context, given the choice to release not a specific full performance, but three separated tracks. David Torn, in a similar fashion as he did with the aforementioned Prezens, re-assembled improvised parts with the purpose of creating a unique product coming from different performances, yet keeping an distinctive narration beneath. And the recording doesn’t solely focus on complete improvisation -the trio usually doesn’t allow any written material in the live context-, but it also includes an orchestrated section in the middle track. The initial track Eye Meddle opens with a two notes rhythmic pattern, that immediately creates a typical Torn atmosphere. This is a sort of recurrent snippet of music that he seemingly plays to mark the start the start of his own and others’ improvisations. While Ches Smith‘s african percussions on timpani thrust the energy, Tim Berne adds beautiful and shrilling overtones with the alto, seemingly playing it like a flute. Then he moves back to the lower register, sketching an intimate portrait of few notes. Moving in a different land than his usual bands, the sax player cares less about developing his typical structures of leaping and contrasting rhythms, like he does with Snakeoil. He instead looks at the timbre and texture blowing out from his instrument, exploring the technical capabilities of the alto in a way that almost reminds what he did in his early ’80s recordings. While Berne has always been very interested in collaborating with guitar mavericks -Marc Ducret and Nels Cline to name a few-, David Torn is probably the one closer to the scratchy and ironing Bill Frisell‘s style on Berne‘s acclaimed Fulton Street Maul, released in 1987.

Today Berne and Torn are developing a partnering route made of longer timeframes and they are allowing time to reach burning excesses. They often restrain from playing, or just sit in the background, carefully seizing each utterance by their instruments. Favoring instant composition instead of a solo focused playing, they mostly leave the tonal palette to the sole Ches Smith‘s tuned percussions. The drummer has cultivated a deep background of diverse bands and techniques. He studied with polyrhythmic educator Peter Magadini, with composers Alvin Curran, Pauline Oliveros and guitarist Fred Frith. It was during a lesson with Winant that he got the first important gig, with avant-prog icons Mr. Bungle. This led toanother avant-prog band, Secret Chiefs 3, and then, eventually, playing with guitarist Marc Ribot. Moving through a chain of unending connections between genres, Ches Smith is now a key player in the jazz avantgarde scene, with multiple bands and recordings at his own name -including an ECM release, The Bell published in 2016 with Craig Taborn and Mat Maneri. He is all but a side player in Sun of Goldfinger, even though he finds a niche in the side court of the stage, in a space that perfectly fits the room created by the other two. He has a deep percussion palette, mixing a raw drumming with unexpected ethnic nuances. This means it is quite impossible to call him either a percussionist or a drummer. He always seems to be out of the room, invisible; yet he is always doing something nobody would ever think about doing.

In the middle of Eye Meddle Smith initially alternates percussions and electronics in such a way, that it seems impossible to clearly disguise what he is doing and what instead is David Torn doing with his electronic equipment. When he moves to a steady rhythm, which is sounding kind of disturbed due to a displaced beat, Berne plays an hypnotic ostinato that elicits Torn‘s howls. Until, at around sixteen minutes, the guitarists puts at show a real solo made of few notes and intense reverberations, an exploration of the organic capabilities of the instrument in the vein of what he displayed in only sky. When Berne comes in with rippling patterns, Torn follows him on the same ground, creating an intimate, and yet aggressive, interaction.

In an interview with All About Jazz’s Mark Sullivan in 2017, David Torn mentioned he was working on two different ECM releases, one being Sun of Goldfinger and another an orchestral project. The second resulted being Spartan, before it hit, which is now the second track of this release. He chose to add a written element, which gives the status of one-of-a-kind to this recording in comparison to the live performances, and still doesn’t break the continuum of improvisation. The initial and ending track are completely free-form, while the second one alternates written to improvised sections. The trio is enhanced by two more guitarists, Mike Baggetta and Ryan Ferreira, Craig Taborn at piano, and a string quartet. All of them alternate on the stage and enforce the action of the three. Tim Berne‘s initial theme over an orchestral slow progression is confidential and passionate. Craig Taborn enters with a cinematic cadenza, until the track unexpectedly evolves in a luscious, charming, almost exotic progression. This is beautifully contrasting with Smith‘s timpani work and guitar’s cold howls. The percussion’s polyrhythmic patterns brings the band to an improvised section. Tim Berne unleashes a show of pure energy, bringing the capabilities of his alto at the highest level, finally joint in scratchy unisons with David Torn. Italian jazz writer Stefano Zenni quoted Berne with the following words his plastic and fluid narration is the perfect representation of the anxiety and ambiguity of our times [Stefano Zenni, Storia del Jazz]. Then Sun of Goldfinger is one his most relevant evidences of this description.  When, at around eight minutes and half the tension is almost breath taking, a creepy noise creates the effect of an incredible earthquake. The following ten minutes are more reflective, moving around haunting and barely perceptible soundscapes, occasional bursts of sounds

A repeated ascending pattern by Tim Berne duets with the twisting noises and feedbacks by David Torn in the opening of Soften the blow. It’s not until seven minutes and half that Ches Smith joins the three: he creates what would later become a slow and syncopated rhythm over a steady soundscape. Again the unison wails by Torn and Berne seem to emerge so slowly, that they are barely grown from nothing. Guitar’s cries mimic the alto’s and vice versa. Each one is putting himself out of the comfort zone, and the trio evidently takes advantage of that. Moving through over twenty minutes, like each track on the record, Soften the blow is pervaded by an ethnic flavored atmosphere that creates a purely sonic experience. Something that reminds the free-form exploration of Keith Jarrett‘s American Quartet

Voluntarily giving up any thematic development or any intent to create pre-written narrative structures, just surrendering to the flow, Sun of Goldfinger creates a picture of vivid and unforeseen deepness. If the central element of this tryptic marks a diversion from those ground rules, with the alternation between delicate and more aggressive moments in Spartan, before it hit, still this is the element that enhances red thread behind the recording. It’s a praise to the work David Torn did in the mixing process of the album, which gave a shining touch and completely reshaped the intent of the improvisation, and it’s a praise as well to what this trio is unexpectedly able of.

David Torn, Tim Berne, Ches Smith
Sun of Goldfinger

1. Eye Meddle
2. Spartan, Before It Hit
3.Soften the Blow

David Torn: electric guitar, live-looping, electronics
Tim Berne: alto saxophone
Ches Smith: drums, electronics, tanbou.

Craig Taborn: electronics, piano
Mike Baggetta: guitar
Ryan Ferreira: guitar
Scorchio String Quartet:
Martha Mooke: viola/director
my Kimball: violin
Rachel Golub: violin
Leah Coloff: cello

ECM 2613

1 John Scofield, interview in Miles Davis, by Luca Cerchiari, Mondadori (source not mentioned, backtranslated from italian)