Tag Archives: the sound traveler podcast

New Listen: David Torn’s ‘only sky’

[NOTE: I also talk a bit about this album and review on today’s episode of Matt Borghi’s The Sound Traveler Podcast, which you can find here.]


Artist: David Torn
Album: only sky (2015)

David Torn’s only sky is a wonderful addition to, and a unique artifact within, the ECM Records catalogue. While I don’t necessarily agree with the “New Age” genre classification that automatically appeared in my iTunes window when loading it to my library, Torn’s music certainly and quickly transcends jazz and classical labels and notions – however broad – within the album’s first few minutes.

only sky is my first foray into David Torn’s work, at least as a solo artist. Aside from being peripherally aware of his past ECM releases, I was keen on this release because of the cross-promotion he’d been doing with saxophonist Tim Berne, a longtime associate of his and someone whose own playing I’ve come to know and admire these last couple years. (Berne also released a new album on ECM this year – You’ve Been Watching Me, produced by Torn, which is quite good. Relatedly, Berne is credited with some of the photography in the Torn liner notes.) And, to put an oddly selfish point on it, before purchasing the album I was struck to learn that Torn performed at Baltimore’s The Windup Space on only sky‘s release tour, which is a small, hip arts venue where Matt Borghi and I performed during last year’s east coast tour. As much as I love ECM and not-so-secretly aspire (in vain, admittedly) to one day join its ranks myself, part of me just wanted to know why such an artist would play a venue suitable for the likes of me (i.e., someone of much lower status). However, having absorbed Torn’s solo work on only sky, I can say that his intimate approach must’ve been a perfect fit for that room in Baltimore.

only sky is a solo album, featuring Torn on guitar and electric oud along with myriad real-time effects and processing. So, even though it’s just one performer and his instrument, Torn creates a sonically expansive universe riddled with nine unique, engaging soundworlds. Improvisation is key, with each piece being heavily if not fully realized on the spot. The first track, “at least there was nothing,” is perfectly emblematic of this. The desolate, calm beginning includes multiple layers of sound. Without the liner notes, one wouldn’t even immediately know that a guitar is the source. This textural – almost ambient – approach continues for a while, with an electric oud eventually entering with the album’s first monodic statements after over five minutes.

Lest you think the whole album is one meditatively ambient work, each tune explores different sonic territory. “spoke with folks,” the next track, changes course and heads in an almost Americana direction. Beginning with a diatonic, folk-like melody, Torn speaks through various iterations that gradually add distortion and head into psychedelic territory, which opens the door for the more rock-based explorations in “ok, shorty.”

“was a cave, there…” returns to the ambient-friendly aesthetic of the album’s opening. But where “at least there was nothing” is like sinking into a warm bath, “was a cave, there…” is like exploring the cold, unpredictable realms of space, featuring dissonance, processing, and effects. Torn then turns your attention from cosmic considerations to those of the Delta blues in “reaching barely, sparely fraught.” Over the rhythmic ostinato of open harmonies, Torn plays a blues that often borders on the swampy. Just as with the previous selections, he’s venturing into new sonic and stylistic grounds. The near devolution into distortion and processing at the very end of the track foreshadows what’s to come in “i could almost see the room.” Here, Torn uses what I’ll call aggressive “harmonic processing” that sound more akin saxophone multiphonics than solo guitar. (I’m not a guitarist, so that’s all I’ve got. Sorry, gunslingers.) This piece features a rough ABA’ form, with with some soloing over self-accompaniment falling in between the multiphonic-like sections.

The title track is a contemplative ballad of sorts, cleansing the palette of the more dissonant and tense playing immediately before. In fact, one could consider this the beginning of the album’s descent, as only sky‘s golden section occurs within the aggressive “i could almost see the room,” suggesting a gradual coming down through the rest of the selections.

The peaceful “so much what” features a lot of washy, strummed chords that eventually give way to almost whale-like calls. This fades into an angelic sound bed, which decrescendos to make room for one of the few instances of “pure” (in tone) guitar soloing to close out the track. It’s a rare glimpse into what Torn may sound like before being fully plugged in. Finally, “a goddamned specific unbalance” picks up where its predecessor left off, with some more soloing, though this time with a more affected tone and starting out in a monodic fashion. This is one of the few instances of arguably jazzy riffing throughout the album. Almost as an inverse of the first track, the soloing eventually transitions to more robust textures after several minutes, eventually moving along and fading into the ether as skies often do.

As I mentioned at the outset, Torn transcends stylistic labels here. Furthermore, there are only a couple instances in which his playing reminds me of others, be it explicitly (though I doubt intentionally) or otherwise. For example, there are a couple brief seconds in the jazz-like soloing of the final track in which I hear shades of John Abercromie (specifically when playing with Charles Lloyd, though his work with Gateway could also be considered sonically related), and a couple of the quasi-ambient passages remind me of Matt Borghi‘s guitar work. No doubt allusions are made to Robert Fripp in various reviews, but, to me, Borghi’s more “orchestral” and arguably un-guitar-like approach to the instrument sticks out as more sonically related. Matt often refers to parts of his guitar work as “contemplative microsymphonies,” a term that, along with an extra dash or two of rock, safely applies to much of only sky.

If you’re looking for something different, thought-provoking, and intimate, I highly recommend this album. I’m glad I took the plunge; you will be, too.

ECM link here
Amazon link here
iTunes link here

[Hear me discuss the album on today’s episode of The Sound Traveler Podcast here.]

FYI: Branching Out II

As mentioned here, the blog is branching out some via some cross-publication content. The MT-Headed Blog coup is finally taking shape! Or something like that…

Similar to the East Lansing Info-related content, I’ll be publishing some posts here that can be found in different forms elsewhere. In this case, it’s Matt Borghi‘s The Sound Traveler Podcast. Regular readers or visitors (who may not read all the posts) know Matt as my friend and partner in musical crime. His podcast has been going strong for several months. For lack of a better term, it’s a behind the scenes look at Matt’s musical interests, processes, catalogue, influences, new finds, and more. In that regard, it’s not that much different than the format of this blog, only with Matt at the center and via spoken sound and audio clips. The Sound Traveler Podcast is eclectic and compelling, and it hits the web-waves weekly.

(I myself have kicked around the idea of doing a podcast of sorts since 2010 or so, but never seriously pursued it. On my own, I figured I’d do the blog or a podcast, but I opted to stick with this legacy format.)

All that said, I’ve already joined Matt for a couple of episodes (here and here), the second of which was a complementary episode to the last post. The former episode —  featuring a Borghi | Teager triptych (discussion en route to gig, portions of the gig, discussion returning home) — includes my going on a jag about the NEA Jazz Masters and referencing this post.

Looking forward, I’ll write some occasional posts here to coincide with my some of my contributions there when appropriate. The next instance will be the post immediately following this one, a “New Listen” on David Torn’s only sky. Admittedly it’s not the finest vocal work, as it’s the first time I recorded speaking an album review (with skeletal notes while hopped up on caffeine in the middle of the night). But I’ll hopefully get my sea legs before too long.


Pat Metheny’s ‘Hommage à Eberhard Weber’ Live at Detroit Jazz Festival


Pat Metheny‘s Hommage à Eberhard Weber received its North American debut Monday evening in the Motor City. The new work, a mixed-media tribute to the German bassist featuring big band and sampled video, closed out the 2015 Detroit Jazz Festival on the main stage. Hommage was premiered in Stuttgart, Germany in January 2015 at a concert honoring Weber, which he attended, and also serves as the title track of the upcoming ECM release due out this Friday 09.11.15.

Pat Metheny, particularly over the last decade or so, has been treating listeners to new sonic adventures, be it with his symphony-length The Way Up for the Pat Metheny Group, his orchestrion project (both solo or incorporated into the Unity Group), and now this inventive big band composition. Weber, who’s been unable to perform since a 2007 stroke, sounds and feels musically alive and well in this new work.

On a selfish note, I was happy to have Metheny bring the name, image, and sounds of Weber to the Detroit Jazz Festival, which is often North American-centric (understandably so, to a degree) and doesn’t often feature the Northern European jazz aesthetic. I made the trek with friend, collaborator, and fellow ECM fan Matt Borghi. (We recorded some pre- and post-show comments and discussion for a forthcoming episode of his Sound Traveler Podcast due out this week. Link here.)

The piece is unique and its performance was unlike anything I’ve seen in a jazz setting. Analogous attempts have been made in other styles, particularly in Zappa Plays Zappa, which has featured Dweezil Zappa playing transcriptions of his father’s guitar solos visually accompanied by projections of his father executing the original. But that’s in more of a reproductive, canonical context. In Hommage, Metheny uses samples of Weber’s unaccompanied improvised solos as launching pads for both composition and improvisation, resulting in an entirely new work. (Rather than an orchestration of Weber’s ideas or something else similarly derivative.) Metheny writes in the album’s liner notes:

It came to me that it would be interesting to take the idea of sampling one step further; to find video elements of Eberhard improvising and then reorganize, chop, mix and orchestrate elements of those performances together into a new composition with a large projection of the Eberhard moments that I chose filling a screen behind us as we performed. It seemed like a new way to compose for me that would almost take the form of visual sampling.

Reading about it and seeing footage – my photograph above or the official video trailer below – don’t quite do it justice, as this is a composition that is meant to be seen as well as heard. Reading the descriptions, I was intrigued going into the performance, but what I saw was much greater than the sum of its already impressive parts. Metheny was backed by the Detroit Jazz Festival Big Band (featuring regional heavies) and shared the spotlight with vibraphonist Gary Burton, drummer Danny Gottlieb, bassist Scott Colley, conductor Alan Broadbent, and of course the footage, spirit, and sound of bassist Eberhard Weber.

The work is largely in four sections:
I. Emerging from silence, winds, cymbals, guitar, and Weber build thick sonic textures and dense harmonies, giving way to Weber’s plucked solo ostinato. The big band is then off at a healthy moderato, with guitar and vibes taking the melodic and soloistic reins. Even when quicker and rhythmic, the winds offer more textural than melodic support here.
II. Some building arco passages then transition to a more burning section, led again by a plucked ostinato from Weber. Here Metheny takes us into more “big band-friendly” territory, offering ample room for Metheny to shred with his trademark affected tone — it’s almost Pat Metheny Group Big Band featuring Eberhard Weber. The band transitions out of this part with the instrumental sections rhythmically punctuating against one another, eventually blending into the more textural elements from the beginning.
III. Weber & co. then lead us into a folk-like romp, with Metheny quickly strumming on the hollow body a la 80/81‘s “Two Folk Songs.” Here, Scott Colley shines in the spotlight dueling in call-and-response fashion with a digital Weber. And, amazingly, like the rest of this piece, it works. It doesn’t feel forced or like the band is “playing to a track.” It all melds together into one cohesive unit. A frenetic drum solo by Gottlieb then leads us to the final chapter.
IV. Much like the beginning, the big band is more textural here, while Weber melodically solos atop. The digital Weber has acted more as musical director and bassist until this point, but he’s the featured soloist to close, which makes this Hommage a very fitting and tasteful tribute.

Metheny mentions in the liner notes that he hadn’t scored for big band in decades. Well, could’ve fooled me. It’s a very well-written work. Furthermore, I can’t express enough just how well all the parts come together. Seeing and hearing Weber within the piece really made him feel like a genuine part of the performance. Bravo to Pat Metheny on a job well done.

The soloists and ensemble gave a commanding and cohesive performance. I could be wrong, but it appeared as if there was a quick skip/glitch in the video feed near the transition from the first to the second sections, but everyone quickly adjusted and got back on the same page. Perhaps it wasn’t a glitch and there was just a natural hiccup to overcome in the Weber track; hard to tell. (Speaking from my own experiences performing the music of Jakob ter Veldhuis, I can attest to the difficulty of performing composed works with tape, particularly when the samples aren’t always “exact” in certain sections.) The mix itself was mediocre at best, but that had nothing to do with the performers nor the composition.*

I’m very glad I saw this piece live, the performance of which I’m sure will be a rarity going forward. I really hope ECM considers releasing a video of the Eberhard Weber tribute concert from Stuttgart in January so that more people will have an opportunity to see this work as well as hear it. But until then, check out the audio, and the rest of the concert (featuring a host of other musicians including Jan Garbarek) when it hits the shelves this Friday.

*Having seen many DJF concerts on that same stage, I’m surprised that the mix wasn’t MUCH better. Quest, a quartet, was much louder than this full ensemble, for instance.

[Photo by yours truly]