Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Heavyweight Innovators

David Torn’s Prezens, The Vortex, Sun 13th January 2008

The first great gig of 2008 also happens to be the first in a long list of splendid shows in The Vortex jazz club’s finest two month run since moving to its current Dalston home. There are performances from Phil Robson and Dave Liebman, with Liebman returning to collaborate with Vortex resident Evan Parker, plus appearances from Seb Rochford’s Polar Bear and the prodigious Gwilym Simcock amongst other highlights.

Torn’s appearance promotes his ‘Prezens’ album, his first group recording for the ECM label in over 20 years, and one of the most creative and exciting albums of 2007. The guest list tonight is like a who’s who of contemporary British jazz – with Robin Fincker and Dave Smith from Outhouse and Ingrid Laubrock amongst others present in the audience.

Torn is a chameleonic musical figure – gaining what must be a substantial income from soundtrack, production and session projects (he’s played with artists as diverse as King Crimson and Madonna). Tonight he performs on one of those rather nasty 1980s guitars that it’s easy to imagine being played by Satriani or Vai, but he’s far less interested in technical virtuosity than he is in the thrall of sound. Sometimes it’s thick and cacophonous, sometimes it’s blissful and atmospheric.

For this free improvisation project he has formed a superb group, featuring unconventional keyboardist Craig Taborn, saxophone colossus Tim Berne and Tom Rainey, one of the most inventive drummers in the world. The music they concoct tonight is somewhat less fiery than the apocalyptic and terrifying recordings – perhaps as a result of the more limited use of elecronics. Taborn crafts a world of intriguing noises, but Rainey’s drums are left spare and acoustic, rather than heavily treated as they often are on the disc.

This doesn’t mean it’s less interesting though. In the first set, Berne’s playing is more considered and mellifluous than usual, proving he has as much tonal control as predilection for the upper register of his instrument. He even starts out playing languid and stately chord tones. Torn creates vast sheets of sound, huge chords emboldened by considerable distortion and sustain, only rarely venturing into more fluid and intricate passages. The music is at its best when most stripped back – when Taborn plays simple synth bass patterns against Rainey’s supremely groovy backings (many of which appear to be in 6/4, drawing whole worlds of possibilities from time and rhythm).

The music in the second set veers further into abstraction, with Rainey more interested in the varieties of sound he can craft from the drum kit, and with the group as a whole leaving more space and silence. I felt this was more consistent and inspired than the Tim Berne multimedia performance at the Vortex last year, with Torn arguably having the clearer, stronger vision, drawing out the very best in his fine players.

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