The music of the iconic ECM Records roster is diverse yet singular—one of the few jazz labels that’s unofficially been designated with its own specific genre. “ECM style jazz” as informally known in internet circles is best displayed through the sprawling, classical-inspired pieces of prolific innovator Keith Jarrett or the chilly, atmospheric roster of Scandinavian artists on the label in recent years. David Torn, who released his ECM debut Best Laid Plans 34 years ago (and early masterpiece Cloud About Memory two years later), has always sounded slightly out of the sonic sphere of the label, though not necessarily at odds with it. His early recordings had as much in common with Brian Eno and Robert Fripp as they did with David Holland or Chick Corea, and he’s recorded with members of King Crimson and appeared on a number of albums by David Bowie, including 2013′s The Next Day. To call his music “fusion” is a grand understatement.
Sun of Goldfinger, Torn’s 14th album and a collaboration with saxophonist Tim Berne and percussionist Ches Smith, is among his most sprawling and fascinating recordings. Comprising three twenty-plus-minute compositions (and improvisations), each of vastly different sonic makeup, Sun of Goldfinger is as much an immersive sonic experience as it is a showcase for three of contemporary jazz’s most interesting soloists.
The marquee trio are the sole performers on two-thirds of the album, using their more intimate collaborative interplay as a platform for ideas that billow out beyond the constraints of a traditional jazz trio. The first track, “Eye Meddle,” is a fiery Black Lodge jam session, Torn’s eerie guitar loops crafting a peculiar and surreal atmosphere of menacing cool as Berne’s saxophone grows increasingly more intense and aggressive. There’s an unexpected interplay between unsettling calm and melodic panic, and it’s one hell of a way to start things off. By comparison, “Soften the Blow” is more skeletal and spacious, a vast emptiness echoing between Berne’s squawks and a background hum that at times seems to imitate Tuvan throat singing. It feels less like a jazz band at work and more like the score of a mind-bending piece of cinema. And I, for one, would love to see just what that strange vision might look like.
Final composition “Spartan, Before It Hit” is much bigger, building upon the trio’s central core with the addition of two more guitarists, keyboards and a string quartet. To say it’s the real showpiece of the three compositions is simultaneously obvious and maybe unfair to the other two—Sun of Goldfinger is consistently unpredictable and thrilling and often quite gorgeous. But this is something more elaborate; the film score analogy is most accurate here, with the balance of piano and strings providing a haunting noir atmosphere upon which the trio constructs a bridge toward greater tension, grandeur and eventual chaos. It’s a big piece full of big ideas, one that can’t necessarily all be fully taken in on a first listen but nonetheless provides a hell of a journey throughout its 22 minutes. Which, come to think of it, is exactly what the best ECM recordings do.