David Torn

It has always been the tradition that a master passes on his teaching to at least one successor. Jimi Hendrix had not one, but everyone, as his disciple. His spirit infuses every electric guitarist, but I believe that David Torn is the leading exponent of what he himself has called Hendrix’s ‘burning wall of voodoo’.

I first heard Torn with the Jan Garbarek Group back in 1986. The album was the superlative It's Okay to Listen to the Gray Voice, and I was lucky enough to catch the tour. Torn had the unenviable task of replacing Bill Frisell — something on the order of Peter Green stepping into Clapton’s shoes in the 1967 Bluesbreakers. Torn managed with similar ease to Green, perhaps too much so: I have several times been asked if it is Frisell playing on that album. Not a mistake anyone familiar with Torn would make.

Lovely though Frisell’s playing is, Torn goes to a place in which I feel more comfortable. He explores a more convivial territory — a Jazz informed by my beloved Rock rather than the TexMex, all-American beauty of Frisell. Having said this, I bought Torn's first expedition as leader, Best Laid Plans, and wrestle with it still. I am a drummer, but I still find it hard to listen to drums in anything less than a trio. Much as I love Bruford, his albums with Patrick Moraz didn’t touch me, either.

Gladly, my churlish unresponsiveness to Plans did not prevent me from buying Cloud About Mercury, which includes said marvellous Bruford in a quartet with Tony Levin and Mark Isham. This remains one of my favourite musics. Bruford uses a Simmons kit, and, Levin, his bandmate from King Crimson, confines himself to the wondrous Chapman stick or a synthsizer bass, leaving the acoustic realm to Isham’s fine trumpeting, and allowing plenty of space for Torn’s astounding guitar playing.

Progressive Rock abandoned most of its pretence at serious music after Yes’s Relayer — leading to Pop Prog with the likes of Asia — plenty of flash and pomp, but easy on the substance. Cloud About Mercury is a restatement of the significant elements of that music when its musicians — Bruford of course among them — still yearned after the Holy Grail. Better yet, it has none of those tinny monophonic synths. And it allows a strong lick of Jazz into the Rock-Classical base. Listen to it alongside the first UK album for a last nostalgic glimpse of what might have been. Better yet, go out and form your own combo, and take the next Progressive step.

Torn can be experienced, and deeply so, on many albums as a sideman. He has returned the favour to Mark Isham several times. He also has been welcomed into the fold by Michael Shrieve, a great explorer from his early days as the drum-engine in the original Santana. Shrieve is a virtuoso who somehow brims with humility (not a quality we expect in a musician). I remember reading that he studied to learn the matched grip — meaning holding the sticks straight, rather than with the left stick held across the palm, as is conventional for military, marching and Jazz drummers. Studied to find out how to hold the sticks. Amazing. Probably where I've been going wrong all these years.

With Bruford, Shrieve was at the forefront of drummers determined to grab hold of and export the newest technology. The Leaving Time is a fine collaboration with synth player Steve Roach, and the incredible McLaughlin sideman, bassist Jonas Hellborg. Torn also joined ex-Policeman Andy Summers on Shrieve’s excellent follow-up, Stiletto. Shrieve then joined Torn on the exceptional Marty Fogel album Many Bobbing Heads at Last. Musical chairs, indeed. Sax player Fogel had already played with Torn in the Everyman Band. If you like Many Bobbing Heads (and I do) then you will probably like the Everyman Band, too.

In 1990, Torn made his third album, Door X. Once more, he is accompanied on several tracks by Bruford. Mick Karn, formerly of Japan, plays bass and bass clarinet. Following in Hendrix’s footsteps, there is a slight Pop-Soul feel at times. Torn manages the vocals tunefully enough, but the guitar is as ever outstanding. The opening track, Time Bomb, is compelling. For reasons unknown, the version of Voodoo Chile abandons Hendrix’s elaborate, labyrinthine lyric after a couple of lines. It also is actually a mutational mix with Voodoo Child (Slight Return), for the pedants among us. I would have liked a longer solo, too. Ne’mind, eh? The whole speaks of a sort of T.S.Eliot, post-hippie mysticism. If you know what I mean... Cover the whole of Ladyland, why don’t you? Some very head-shifting licks here. Torn curves spacetime, given even a quarter of a chance.

I don’t have his next work, the soundtrack to Storyville. Such are the inflictions of poverty upon the dilettante critic (all contributions gracefully received). Torn has been hugely in demand for soundtrack work, often playing the work of composer Carter Burwell. His shrills, twangs and stuffings appear on many, many, many films, not limited to, but including: Adaptation, The Rookie, A Knight’s Tale, Heist, Traffic, Three Kings, The Velvet Goldmine, Conspiracy Theory, The Big Lebowski, The Chamber, AirHeadsand Short Cuts.

Tripping Over God appeared in 1995, and here comparison must be drawn with that other mysterious maestro of the soundscape, Robert Fripp. There is an occasional burst of something backwardly fuzzy that might almost be a Frippertronic running for its hole. As with Fripp, this Torn experience hurtles into the cerebral vault, and finds there both the ethereal, and the agonised. I hate to admit it, but I’m going to anyway: I’ve slapped the ethereal onto a disc, and sometimes play only it. I would like the good Mr Torn to just sit and noodle for a couple of hours, on his very best of days, and send me the result. I’d be happy, David, I really would. Nothing wrong with a bit of catharsis though, and this is a fine and innovative album. In fact, on relistening as I write: it is a masterpiece.

Torn’s voice is absolutely distinct, and his sound fine-honed. We would probably enjoy a good, old chat about Joseph Campbell and Idries Shah, too. On the sleeve to Tripping, he gives the following excellent quote from the great poet and Sufi sage Jalaluddin Rumi: ‘If you desire sanity in this embarrassment, stuff not the ear of your mind with cotton.’ I try to do so always, or not to do so, as the case may not be or be.

Torn also shared the David Sylvian guitar chair with Fripp (Fripp always sits down to play), as well as the equally accomplished Bill Nelson. I love and adore 1987’s Secrets of the Beehive. Sylvian is one of the few successful, contemporary musicians who can claim depth. Intelligent Pop, oxymoronic though it may sound. His subject matter — even when it is lurv — is sensitively explored, and he has great musical range, and the most beautiful of baritones. He is also suitably arty — even using the voice of proto-conceptualist Joseph Beuy’s on a track (though not on this album). Torn doesn’t play on my favourite song — Orpheus — but his chum Mark Isham contributes a trumpet solo worthy of Kenny Wheeler, so buy it anyway!

Back to 1995, when Torn worked with experimental percussionist Mark Nauseef, and acoustic guitarist Miroslav Tadic, on their album The Snake Music. This has a splendid collaboration with superstar Jack Bruce, revisiting his own fine Rope Ladder to the Moon, and a beautiful version of Hendrix’s The Wind Cries Mary. These two tracks stand separately from the remainder of the album. I would rejoice if they went back to the studio, and remade an album of classic Bruce/Brown and Hendrix compositions. Torn appears on these and two other tracks on this at times splendidly weird album (okay, at times not so splendid, unless you like Free Jazz). Jack Bruce growls out the finest of Blues’ harps on the furious opening track. The Peacock sounds as if it had an unpleasant time on the hot rock, however, despite the addition of wonderful trumpeter, Markus Stockhausen (hear him with Rainer Bruninghaus on the breath-taking Continuum; beautifully rubbished by the AMG critic; ah, sweet vitriol!). Where they have a tune, I like it, in short.

1996 saw the release of Torn's next solo excursion, and this time it is almost totally solo. On What Means Solid, Traveller? he takes his guitar to the limits of distortion and feedback with the considerate violence his fans have come to love. The drums come largely from machines, a tragedy acceptable only in the name of experimentation. My heart leapt to see Mitch Mitchell credited — had this guru returned from beyond the veil? The answer is a resounding loop from that fine drum restart on Voodoo Chile. Which is to say: No, sadly he had not.

Here be funky rock, screeching and some of the most delicate twiddling you will ever enjoy. What more do you want? This is an obvious must for anyone who thought for a moment that they knew anything about playing a guitar. He knows how to freak out, and how to tickle a harmonic, and everything in between. The readers of Guitar Player Magazine voted Torn best experimental guitar player, in 1997, presumably for this album. He had already won the distinction once before, in 1994.

No, I don’t have GTR OBLQ either, sod poverty, this is getting ridiculous. I have almost a thousand CDs, and a list of at least a hundred must-buys from Hariprasad Chaurasia's Nimbus recordings — heaven on Earth — to the complete Billie Holiday (and Ella, and Sarah Vaughan), and mid-period Traffic, Steve Stills, Mogul Thrash. I’m even missing a couple of Holdsworth albums! Is anybody listening? No, looks like I’ll have to get a better job...

In 1998, CMP records issued a compilation of Torn’s work as sideman and leader on their diminutive, brave label. This is innovatively titled David Torn Collection. It sent me scurrying — a worthy sight — to buy several of the albums. This is a fine collection, but not necessarily representative of the albums — as I’ve said, Torn appears on only four of the 12 tracks on The Snake Music. The sensitive ballad Nursing Emphysema, despite its beauty, did not inspire me to buy Wes Martin’s probably exquisite 3 Pound Universe (that is probably the weight of your brain, I’m guessing, but take it out and see, then Wes will probably write a song about that, too, and it will be haunting and touching). I did, however, make the mistake of buying Andy Rinehart’s Jason’s Chord, mainly because of Walter Quintus’s violin and Dirk-Ulrich Kaufmann’s cello. Yep, you guessed, it’s the only track they play on. But I enjoy Fogel’s Many Bobbing Heads at Last, and the Collection is well worth having.

Torn has also worked with Mick Karn and master drummer Terry Bozzio. Having insisted earlier on trios, I have to say that I like a bit more meat in the middle of my sandwich (only figuratively, I’m mainly vegetarian in real life). But if you favour the sparse — sans rhythm guitar but plus paradiddles -— try Polytown.

In 1998, Torn rejoined old pals Bruford and Levin for their Upper Extremities. Again, as with Torn’s Cloud About Mercury, they sensibly chose to add trumpet - played by Chris Botti — to the line-up. Torn not only plays guitar, but also features on such sonic rarities as brokenbird, hysterium, guitar sphere, noir loops, barking guitar, light-industry dementia, e-bow, throat and moat loop, wack guitar, big vile winged things, bubbleslide guitar, squoze-cat loops, and, inevitably, shattered electric bouzooki. Talk about multi-talented, multi-instrumentalist! Occasional doodling, but a splendid album. Sadly, I lack a second trip, released as the double CD Blue Nights in 2000. The Amazon entry claims that this is a live disc. The Torn dedicated Splattercell site esoterically makes no comment.

Also in 2000, a couple of discs attributed to SPLaTTeRCell — aka David Torn it would seem — were released. The first was OAH and the second REMiKSiS:AH — not actually a tribute to REM but remixes, presumably by several of Torn’s dylsexic friends (sik).

Most recently, I have been given Bowie’s excellent Heathen, to which Torn contributed. Immediately my favourite Bowie album. And for Torn, at last the big time, taking over from Ziggy Ronson and Reeves Gabrels (a plurality of a name if ever I heard one). Subsequently, he worked on Bowie’s 2003 release Reality, as yet unknown to me. He has also been accepted by Grand Master Jeff Beck, guesting on 2003’s Jeff. Hopefully, he has by now paid all of his bills — having long ago he paid any outstanding musical dues — and done so without compromise.

So, at last, sisters and brothers, we reach the end, and find that we are as we began, so I must be saying: buy these albums without prevarication:

If you favour Jazz flavours, begin with Jan Garbarek’s It’s Okay to Listen to the Gray Voice. For the more Rock inclined, try Torn’s Cloud About Mercury. For head on freak-out indulge yourself with What Means Solid, Traveller? For a slightly gentler experience, but still in places wild, Tripping Over God. If it be the straighter Rock you lust after, buy Door X.

When you are hooked, add these:
— Michael Shrieve & Steve Roach, The Leaving Time
— Michael Shrieve, Stiletto
— Marty Fogel, Many Bobbing Heads at Last
— David Sylvian, Secrets of the Beehive
— David Torn, David Torn Collection
— Bruford Levin, Upper Extremities

While you’re at the shops, buy me copies of these, and I promise to add them to the review:
— David Torn, Storyville
— Reid, Sharp, Torn, GTR OBLQ
— and any of the enormously huge remaining catalogue of appearances
(for which see

P.S. You don’t have to take my word for it. The following quotes were nicked from the splattercell site. All from the USA , so come on you people of other nations, be patriotic and get writing! As you can see, Torn makes critics gush a veritable Ganges of adjectives, almost like an evening with Hunter S:

While creating ungodly, insect-fear noises by subverting loops & delays to his own weird ends with massive amounts of distortion, he’ll tell you he’s just playin’ the blues: it’s a strange mix of primitive mojo & state-of-the-art technology.
Musician Magazine

Avant-Guitar’s crawling king snake.
Guitar Player Magazine

One of the most exciting guitarists around. Unearthly textures, incendiary solos, exotic sonic tapestries.
Billboard Magazine

Twisted brilliance.
Jazz Times

Torn is a true wizard, someone who finds mystical potential in every sound.
Los Angeles Times

Torn creates lush ambient textures that make Pink Floyd’s ‘space music’ sound like third-grade sandbox doodles, & transforms jazz harmonies into impressionist soundscapes; if you appreciate guitar as a vehicle for both out-of-body spiritual quests & raw emotional expression, let Torn be your shamanistic guide.
San Francisco Bay Guardian

Ambience with a serrated edge.
CD Review

Torn, with his loops & sheer psychedelic abandon, is able to create dense textures, screaming intervallic leaps and dark-hued washes of sound that are as ingenious as they are impossible to imitate.

He can take a single note & make it careen from a scream to a sigh that will leave you devastated. We’re dropped in at high speed storming down the highway & then dropped off unceremoniously at the next crossroads, but the ride is a harrowing thrill.
CD Review

Back me against a wall & I’ll be forced to admit (if you stick a gun down my throat) that Torn’s patented polyglot of Hindustani-style articulation, Eastern modality, bebop phrasing, psychedelic fuzzfire, trip hop sampling, country string-bending & ambient ear-aurora is the least self-conscious, most interesting & FUN high-brow hybrid currently mutating across America’s parched musical landscape. If beaten into submission & tortured with thumbscrews, I may even concede that his revelatory yet hilarious guitar pedagogy makes more sense & does more good than 100 bogus books crammed with little black dots & formulas that read like Cardassian hieroglyphs. But admit that Torn ROCKS? You’ll have to KILL me, first.
Guitar Player