Prezens is all over the map, and that’s the point

Boston Globe, March 14, 2008

One of the most interesting recent albums to beam back from the frontier where jazz, rock, electronica, and free improvisation intersect was David Torn’s “Prezens.” It’s a digitally enhanced quartet led by a guitarist-producer whose career has taken on the most abstract projects as well as some of the most commercial, as a composer of Hollywood soundtracks or a session musician on major pop and R&B releases.

“Prezens” is both the title of the album, which came out last year on the ECM label, and the name for the group behind it, which performs Thursday at Regattabar. The unit brings together Los Angeles-based Torn with the experimental-jazz trio Hard Cell, which is made up of saxophonist Tim Berne, drummer Tom Rainey, and keyboard player Craig Taborn.

Together, the four have made a record that is all texture and flow, as easy to listen to as it is hard to describe. Though its leader is a guitarist, it doesn’t feel like a “guitar album”: pyrotechnic solos are shunned, and even the moments of mayhem blend the sound to the point where it’s not clear which instrument is which. That quality shows both the deep understanding among the players – most of the record is improvised – and the sophistication of the post-production sampling, looping, and the like that are a trademark of the Torn approach.

The result is a highly successful album of improvised music – the kind that is at once unpredictable yet also feels like it continually draws on familiar, if mutated sources, such as the gospelly blues that seem to lurk deep inside the opening track, the cryptically titled “Ak.” Other forms (or “idioms,” as Torn calls them) percolate in the brew, denoting the catholic appetites of the players themselves.

“The reason this band has been such a joy for me is really based on the fact that we communicate incredibly well, with a shared non-idiomatic, or pan-idiomatic, background for each of the players,” Torn says from his home in Pasadena, Calif. “Nobody particularly loves one idiom over any other. Second, each member of the band can be considered an idiosyncratic, accomplished composer in his own right.”

That collective maturity and openness finds its reflection in the space the four give one another, Torn says – all the more so in live performances, which for reasons of stage set-up and creative inclination vary widely from the record and from one another.

“Sometimes we’ll play and Craig will be into the music deeply, but he won’t hear anything to play into and he’ll lay out for 10, 12 minutes,” Torn says. “Or Tim and Tom will be doing some kind of strange duet and Craig and I are doing nothing. Yet we’re still focused, we’re still improvising. It’s hard to describe how great that can feel as a process. It’s the process of search that makes the performance as important as the result.”

Saxophonist Berne, who has worked on and off with Torn for the past decade, and whom Torn lauds as an exceptionally stimulating and creative partner, echoes the sentiment.

“It’s real easy to play with him,” Berne says of Torn. “There’s no agenda. He’s not interested in showing off how good he is. It’s really a collective force. Everybody’s just trying to get out of the way and recognize when something magical is happening.”

Torn, 54, has enjoyed a long and productive career but little recognition in the spotlight. Much of his work has been as producer, composer, or session musician, enhancing the work of others. His session credits include work with David Bowie, Meshell Ndegeocello, Tori Amos, and John Legend, among many others. In the past year, he says, he has worked on soundtracks for three films.

Artists sometimes engage in a wide range of projects just so they can pay the bills; sometimes, it’s their curiosity that drives them. Torn says that although both apply in his case, it’s mostly the latter.

“I came to be so flexible because of my creative impulse,” he says. “In the beginning, yes, necessity was the mother of invention. But when I was 24, 25 years old, I was already playing in eight different kinds of bands. I played pedal steel in a country band. I played fusion, I played jazz standards. And I enjoyed – or `disenjoyed’ – all of them one way or another.”

He adds: “I don’t feel like a chameleon: I just like a creative challenge no matter what it is. And as a session player, producer, artist, engineer, the challenges are not the same.”

No surprise, then, that Torn and company have found a language in which to do free improvisation with the lushness and expansiveness that one associates with fully composed soundtrack scores. Torn says the project has reawakened in him a feeling of emotional involvement that harkens to an earlier and less-analytic time in improvised music.

“It brings me back to some of the beauty of playing in my youth, that felt freer and more on the transformative side,” he says, recalling a time working with Don Cherry in the late 1970s.

“I do feel for myself that a door has opened. But I don’t know – like other musicians, I’m extremely selfish, and it just feels good to me.”