David Torn is more than happy to speak about his work in great detail. He has the stories too, since the guitarist’s list of collaborators includes David Bowie, Jeff Beck and Tori Amos, in addition to soundtrack projects with the Coen Brothers and numerous recordings under his own name. On the subject of Sun of Goldfinger, an improvising trio with alto saxophonist Tim Berne and drummer Ches Smith, he’s a bit more concise.
“Every time somebody says something about Sun of Goldfinger, my only response is, ‘It’s a band,’” he says with a chuckle. “I have my hand deeply in the pile of post-production stuff. But I see it as a band. I don’t see it as my vehicle.”
Of course, this three-word summary comes at the tail end of a 30-minute phone conversation with Torn, following a detailed look at the trio’s formation and their ECM Records debut. So while there’s humor in his comment, it underscores a grain of truth.
Tim Berne’s tart, rugged alto saxophone was first heard during the late ’70s in what became the Downtown New York jazz scene. It followed years of apprenticing with the late Julius Hemphill of the World Saxophone Quartet.
“I had so much stuff I adopted from him,” Berne says on the phone from his Brooklyn home. “Including his attitude of always coming up with new stuff, not resting on whatever you just did and milking it for the next five years. Seeing him, this brilliant genius, doing [only] three or four gigs a year, it made me realize that if you’re going to do this stuff, you’ve got to do it because you love it.” Today, Berne’s jagged approach to compositions can be heard in a pack of younger musicians that came up listening to him.
Torn has an equally distinct voice on guitar. Surrounded by a bank of effects, his sound brings together progressive rock, jazz and ambient soundscapes. He was recommended to Berne in the 1990s when the latter needed to master some live recordings of his group Bloodcount. They bonded over the work and Torn has produced nearly every Berne project in the ensuing years. In 2010, Berne invited the guitarist to an improv gig in Brooklyn along with Smith, the drummer in Berne’s current quartet Snake Oil. The trio clicked immediately and even before releasing anything, they were touring Europe and Brazil.
Sun of Goldfinger consists of three long tracks, two improvisations and a Torn composition that adds a string quartet, two more guitarists and a keyboardist. They recorded the bigger piece, “Spartan, Before It Hit,” two years before the rest of the album, revisiting it when Berne insisted that it flowed with the rest of the set. The saxophonist says Torn’s production skills bring out the depth in the music.
“It’s like a Robert Altman movie, there’s all this dialogue going on,” Berne says. “There’s a foreground, there’s a background, there’s a middle ground. Somebody has a conversation in the left corner you’re not supposed to hear, and the third time around you do hear it.”
The name originated from an amplifier that Torn helped design called Goldfinger. “Sun of” was added when they needed a name for the gig.
“Does it mean Goldfinger himself was a good guy, if you have him as something iconic in your reading history,” Torn asks. “It really doesn’t mean anything. I just like the way it sounds.”
To paraphrase him – it’s a name.