Alone and live, guitar wizard David Torn’s far-reaching sonic colors recall Pink Floyd and beyond

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The intimate confines of The Jazz Estate seemed to expand with each imaginative foray of guitar explorer-whizard David Torn.  Photo by Ann Peterson

David Torn expanded the compressed space of The Jazz Estate in Milwaukee Wednesday, by enlarging the listener’s aural experience.

But he’s no mere studio effects geek. It was like hearing one guy do Pink Floyd live. What did it sound like? Imagine a lone guitarist balancing the dark side of the moon on his nose while walking a tightrope over Niagara Falls and other natural (and unnatural) wonders he seemed to enter.

His long white mane aglow, Torn seemed a spaceship commander, fiddling with knobs on the amp control set up at his right hand and stepping on several effects pedals almost as often as he executed sometimes outrageously adumbrated chords or oddly beguiling melodies.

The concentric reverberations from multi-source loop effects or tremolo whammy bar distortions ebbed and flowed as the sorts of stratospheric aural washes he’s adorned many movie soundtracks with.

Yet like a reassuring pilot, Torn was calm, droll and unpretentious onstage, considering how arty as his concoctions he can sometimes get. At times he seemed a tad lost in it all, and he admitted that sometimes an aspect of his system breaks down and does whatever will happen. Good thing we weren’t really at 30,000 feet! Or were we?

He informed us that one piece was a “blues” and another “the country tune” — reassuring some, mystifying others. To bring the spaceship analogy slightly back to earth, the total experience seemed often like sonic painting and especially voluminous sculpture, to the ears of this listener, once an undergrad art sculpture major.

Thanks to Matt Turner of The Jazz Estate, and Devin Drobka and Unrehearsed MKE for the event, Torn’s first ever Wisconsin visit.

After a Thursday date in Chicago, Torn plays May 31 at Club Cafe in Pittsburgh, and at Cat’s Cradle Back Room on June 6 in Carrboro, NC, as his first American tour in 20 years continues, in support of his new CD only sky on ECM Records.

James McMurtry talks about the making of “Complicated Game” and more

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Texas singer-songwriter-guitarist-bandleader James McMurtry finds some time off the long, dusty road for some fishing and a cool, wet one. Courtesy NY Times. Photo by Benjamin Sklar

I don’t mind. It’s a pretty good job. I don’t have to say, ‘You want fries with that?’ ” — James McMurtry, on a music career’s highs and lows, years of heavy road touring, and the pressure to record. 

My former colleague Jane Burns did a fine phone interview with McMurtry about his masterful new album Complicated Game, shortly before he came to Madison to perform at The High Noon Saloon.

We worked together at The Capital Times before the Madison daily newspapers merged. She’s been a copy editor, editor and writer, and I was the paper’s arts reporter. I recall one of our first interactions was after she did a tad of nip-tucking on a lead of mine — on a deadline, of course — and I got a bit huffy about it. But I soon felt very good about her handling my copy and we became fast friends, partly because of our mutual tastes and interests in roots musics, and sports — and her insight and professional fair-mindedness. She also does a great job covering the emergence of women’s sports. She helped make my tough last days at The Capital Times bearable, especially while I endured a bad, painful illness that disabled me professionally. 

A natural wit, Jane also writes one of my favorite off-beat and best-titled blogs, Sneezing Through the Roundabouts:

Not long ago, Jane wrote a major piece on the Iowa roots-rock band Scruffy the Cat for I hope she finds time for more of that, however, in today’s topsy-turvy news media world,  dailies tend to work staffers harder than ever today, for diminishing pay and benefits. Especially if they have no union. — KL (Kevernacular)

Here is Jane’s interview feature on McMurtry:

Guest blogger Jane Burns is a veteran journalist whose reporting career has run the gamut from covering NCAA Final Four basketball tournaments to donning plastic shoe covers and hairnets to explore the many cheese factories of Wisconsin. As much as she loves basketball and cheese, it’s music that stole her heart long, long ago.

Thrown into the mix of everything else she’s covered in her career, she’s also written about music and the arts. She’s currently a reporter at the Wisconsin State Journal, and has also worked for the Des Moines Register, USA Today, The Minneapolis Star Tribune and The Capital Times.

James McMurtry’s “Game” reveals more of himself, and of a vividly evoked America

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James McMurtry’s first CD of new material since 2007, “Complicated Game” reveals much more of the man inside the great songwriter than just his dusty boots.

James McMurtry is back and attention must be paid. He should be playing larger venues than he does, as a great American songwriter, as good as we have South of Bob Dylan. He’s also an ace guitarist who can play solos as concisely and tellingly textured as his brilliantly compressed short-story songs.

And like Dylan, his voice is only serviceable, by conventional standards. It conveys a droll incisiveness, and yet can surprise with its expressiveness. But he works from the realm of understatement rather than the over-singing that “sells” a lot of music  — even for some good performers — a tendency the “American Idol” syndrome of pop culture has facilitated.

McMurtry’s grainy voice comfortably wears his vivid and real American writing like a tough, shabby jacket, collar turned up against the wind.

He’s arguably America’s greatest living songwriter who’s more storyteller than poet (comparably great Lucinda Williams, daughter of a famous poet, seems to balance story and poetry*). On Complicated Game he looks inward more than usual, right from the album opener, “Copper Canteen,” a strained relationship song that feels like the echoing chill of countless American marriages. The wife tries to improve a church-avoiding deer hunter-ice fishman who has recurring dark nights of the soul:

When I wake up at night/in the grip of a fright/and you hold me so tight to your chest/And your breath on my skin/still pulls me back/until I’m weightless and then I can rest. It’s a great evocation of the alone-together syndrome, and the existential compression of a lifetime suddenly rushing way too fast into the rearview mirror. 1

Here’s a solo rendition of “Copper Canteen,” with McMurtry on 12-string guitar:

Then there’s the romantic refrains, as in “You Got to Me” and “She Loves Me,” the latter about a man who shares his woman with a parking lot attendant, but holds onto the conviction that she loves him despite the “complicated game” that life on the road makes of love. It’s a story of brave-to-the-point-of-foolish amour, of hope against against the odds. Between the lines, love is dribbling between his fingers onto his boots, like a woman’s heart seemingly turned to sand. Sequenced as the fourth song — after “You Got Me” and the stiff-upper-lip bounce of “I Ain’t Got a Place in This World” — this would seem to be the same woman who held him to her chest, in the grip of the midnight fright, and made him believe in love.

The game is signified right in the stark, black-and-white album cover photograph: Two electrical cords extending from McMurtry’s feet intersect, like two human pathways, just as they disappear into the border’s white void, as if swallowed up by the inscrutably horrifying “whiteness of the whale” which Melville famously meditated on. So electricity, which fuels McMurtry’s artistic power of communication onstage, may have betrayed him, because the symbolic intersection of human hearts is now out of his reach, and control. Though “it was part of our agreement” he never saw the innocuous parking ticket-taker coming. You hear the vulnerability in the self-defensive shell of his voice. It sounds autobiographical.     james m   James McMurtry. Courtesy

So we see more into McMurtry — as a human being, as a man — through his extraordinary powers as a songwriter. That quality makes this recording special, a more deeply radiating beacon in his increasingly impressive recording catalog, and authentic at several levels. Perhaps he’s short-changed in love, but McMurtry’s strongest calling is inevitably to that long, winding road, a gravitational force, which a woman must accept or reject.

He unflinchingly gazes across the blighted American horizon. With superb literary skill, he fashions composites of people he’s known or met who haul heavy hearts. With largely unadorned, perfectly-pitched accompaniment, “South Dakota” speaks intimately of raising cows: It was barely even fall/ but that blizzard got them all/Left them sprawled across the pasture stiff as boards.

The song is inhabited by a returning war veteran who reflects: “There ain’t much between the Pole and South Dakota/ and barbed wire won’t stop the wind/ You won’t  get nothing here but broke and older. I might as well re-up again.” The song is dedicated to the songwriter’s family and father, the renowned novelist Larry McMurtry, and anyone “who has ever had responsibility for the health and welfare of a cow.”

Larry’s son typically offers a dead-insect windshield view — but which retains the land and the people’s indomitable spirit. “Carlisle’s Haul” frames such harsh magnificence in terms of a crab-fishing job: “It’s hard not to cry and cuss/ when this old world is bigger than us/ and all we got is pride and trust in our kind.” McMurtry’s observational story-telling powers have been compared to his father’s, which produced The Last Picture Show, Lonesome Dove and the screenplay to Brokeback Mountain, among other indelible works.

But the younger McMurtry also recalls Charles Dickens in the way his gritty details and array of eccentric characters serve a broader critique of society and industrialization. His 2005 protest anthem “We Can’t Make It Here” still defines our economic times as well as anything.

Complicated Game begins to feel like a great artist’s most mature statement to date, and also a recording that ought to resonate across the nation’s political spectrum for its invocations of American freedom, and of its discontents. Both seem to flow through his veins by now. But McMurtry’s holding steady.

“Deaver’s Cross” is a righteous bluegrass song and the first of two remarkably magnanimous pieces for a guy stereotyped as a grumpy pessimist: So when you’re fishing that March brown hatch/Won’t you share your morning’s catch/with those whose ground you walk across/May their memory be not lost. 

A song that follows, after a few of the tough-minded ones, reminds us that, though unmistakeably a bleach-boned Texas troubadour, McMurtry has clearly traversed America, gigging and searching for dusty companionship. And hell if he can’t celebrate, even as he stares down reality, in the lovely, Uilleann-piping ode to “Long Island Sound.” Riding a gentle, rolling melodic wave evoking that long, lapping coast, he sings: These are the best days, these are the best days, boys put your money away, I got the round. Here’s to all you strangers, the Mets and the Rangers, long may we thrive on the Long Island Sound.

It’s the understated peak of the record and it catches the setting sun on a horizon of rooftops, because McMurtry has climbed this high to see what a magnificent place the great old island is. And then, the two closing lines are poetic strokes; he turns and spies New Mexico and Carolina — by way of Austin — from that metaphoric peak. He might be looking at Anywhere, U.S.A.

scan0586 Liner photo from James McMurtry’s “Complicated Game.” Photo by Shane McCauley

And yet, McMurtry remains too much of a cold-eyed critic of easy social conventions to leave us with only comforting thoughts. The album closes with its strangest song “Cutter,” about a sorry soul who physically mutilates himself with a knife, for reasons ostensibly sociological and psychological, yet ambiguous: “I miss my dog from years ago/ Where he went, I still don’t know./whiskey and coffee while I burn my toast, and build a cage for all my ghosts.” He could be one of countless desperate military veterans, or other American survivors. McMurtry’s under-appreciated vocal vibrato nails the man’s unsteady, just-hanging-on societal mask.

Nevertheless, as he told recently told Rolling Stone, he sees his characters as “enduring, not fading away. Standing against the current that wants to wash you away but can’t, yet.” 2

Despite his prodigious gifts as a wordsmith, McMurtry has a justified reputation for being tight-lipped with journalists, and he turned me down once when I asked for a brief interview, after a show in Milwaukee. McMurtry live James McMurtry live at The High Noon Saloon in Madison with guitarist Tim Holt. Photo by Marc Eisen.

However, after his recent show at the High Noon Saloon in Madison, with no journalistic intentions, I meandered up to his merchandise table, before he got to it. Then suddenly I heard James talking to me, chatting about how he had to jettison his former band name, The Heartless Bastards, “because a more popular band had taken the name.” I’d been eyeing the LP version of Live in Aught-Three, with the formerly named Bastards.

The moment almost felt like his story about the woman who’d never leave him because “she loves me” and he was there first, with his bastards. In the next few moments his nominal loss took on a full human embodiment.

He still works with the same trusty band mates he had in “aught three” — guitarist-accordionist Tim Holt, bassist-harmony vocalist Ronnie Johnson, and drummer Darren Hess. But for his 2007 Just Us Kids record and 2008’s Live in Europe tour and CD/DVD, the great British rock ‘n’ roll keyboardist Ian McLagan had joined the band, and McLagan subsequently moved to Austin, McMurtry’s home base. I’d previously seen McMurtry solo, so I’d hoped to hear McLagan. I asked James if he still played with Ian. “Oh, well, he died,” he said. And then he quickly turned away from me, as if fleeing into the protective shell of the crusty artful observer.

Had he stayed to chat a bit longer I’d probably have told him that two hours before I drove to Madison from Milwaukee — with tickets to his show pre-purchased — my sister Betty called me. Our sister Maureen had died that morning, of a heart attack, at age 60. In a daze of shock, I drove to Madison, because I know Maureen — a music lover and especially a lover of the film musical of Dickens’ Oliver! — would’ve wanted me to. She would’ve appreciated McMurtry’s flinty yet humane tale-spinning. Had I planned a formal concert review, or had not Maureen suddenly died, I might’ve had wits enough to find out that Ian McLagan died in December, in Austin, Texas. 3

Though this moment of revelation seemed painful for McMurtry, he gathered himself gracefully. His fleeting openness with this fan disarmed the journalist in me. I purchased one of the small, inexpensive poster paintings of McMurtry his assistant was hawking. He signed it, while situating himself right at the exit of the saloon, autographing an array of CDs and LPs from fans filing out. Rather than letting them come to the table, he’d come right to his loyal listeners, those who hear and feel his songs.

For some things in this tough road hombre’s life, it is not a complicated game, and he seems grateful for that.


  • Among living songwriters, Dylan, of course, is a self-proclaimed poet. Bruce Springsteen, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, John Prine, Leonard Cohen and Paul Simon are right there, among songwriters, as well. But unlike those great artists, McMurtry, 53, seems to be entering the prime that Lucinda Williams, 63, is in. Also in the discussion is Steve Earle, 61, and up-and-coming Gillian Welch, 48. And anyone who tells a story as concisely, powerfully and beautifully as can James and Lucinda has much of the poet in them. Lucinda, for sure, is the better performer than James. Please discuss if you care to.

1 “Copper Canteen” was reportedly inspired by a McMurtry trip to Wisconsin and to The Steel Bridge Song Fest, in Sturgeon Bay, a wonderful annual event billed as “the world’s only collaborative songwriting festival,” This year’s festival is June 11-14

The opening stanza of the song McMurtry’s knowing description of a man cleaning his hunting gun and hoping for an opportunity to “kill one more doe” — goes against my “Bambi-loving” grain. But I accept the song as an honest characterization of life in rural Wisconsin. Turns out, McMurtry’s a gun owner and gun lover, as is evident by his blog. As I would’ve expected, McMurtry is an extremely thoughtful, reasonable and responsible gun owner.

He addresses the sea change of public opinion on gun regulation prompted by the Newtown massacre. He’s one of many gun owers who disagree with the extreme scare tactics of The National Rifle Association, which he says he quit when Charlton Heston was president, saying he was “just sick of the rhetoric.” McMurtry also offers a take on the broader culture wars of guns, which he sees as being perpetrated mainly for profit by the gun industry. Then he makes this observation, which fits right into Culture Currents:

“Of course, the gun industry is not the only industry contributing to our cultural divisions. Entertainment is all over it. And we seem to be mimicking the entertainment industry, evolving into a nation of stereotypes, one big reality show with a country/hip-hop soundtrack, scripted and sculpted to resemble some Hollywood dream of every white man’s America, where rednecks are proud of the moniker, though their cotton-farming great grandparents are spinning in their graves at the very notion, because they worked like hell to elevate their descendents from the mere suggestion of the term ‘redneck.'”


3. Ian McLagen was a member of the original British invasion band The Small Faces. He went on to a stellar solo and session-sideman career, performing with The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Bonnie Raitt, Chuck Berry, Bruce Springsteen, Green Day and countless big names who play large theaters, or auditoriums or arenas. Which begs the question: Why doesn’t James McMurtry have a larger following?

This review was originally published in a shorter form in The Shepherd Express:

Guitarist David Torn’s far-out and far-in music goes on tour, with a new album


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David Torn performing live recently at  SubCulture in New York City. Photo © Claire Stefaniat

David Torn plays at the The Jazz Estate in Milwaukee

Few guitarists can make their instrument sound larger more or expansive than David Torn. He’s a self-described “guitarist/texturalist” and his deeply resonating tones may remind some of Bill Frisell. But Torn’s been doing this a bit longer and he coaxes his instrument into realms that neither Frisell nor any other plectrist can attain.

But judge for yourself. Torn will perform solo at 8 p.m. Wednesday May 27 at The Jazz Estate, 2423 N. Murray Ave. in Milwaukee (414) 964-9932.

(Torn will also play in Denver on Friday, May 22; Minneapolis on Tuesday, May 26; and Chicago on Friday, May 29. See tour list for details and more dates: )
Torn’s music sounds far out and far in. Yes, somewhat spacey but also deep inside —  like the sound of your own central nervous system, or your heartbeat, or psyche, or even your soul. Perhaps no other guitarist – Jeff Beck aside —  can conjure such a wealth of sonic wonder, strangeness, intimacy and beauty.

This is Torn’s first national tour in two decades. He’s played on or composed many film soundtracks, including No Country for Old Men, The Big Lebowski, Traffic, The Departed, The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn, and  Hans and the Real Girl and played on recordings by John Legend, David Bowie, Madonna, Tori Amos, k.d. lang, Laurie Anderson, Don Cherry and many others. He also produced Jeff, a Grammy-winning album by Jeff Beck (who performs in Milwaukee on Friday, May 22).

Torn’s solo works include Best Laid Plans (1984),Cloud About Mercury (1986), Door X (1990), Tripping Over God (1995), What Means Solid, Traveller? (1996), Splattercell‘s Oah (2000), and the ECM release Prezens (2007).

Torn’s guitar wizardry permeates his new ECM album only sky. A tune like “Spoke with Folks” has a dipsy-do lyricism that recalls Frisell somewhat, but Torn radiates a more gleaming, metallic tone and fractures it into shards of varying textures that seem to surge and mutate from your speakers.

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CD cover to David Torn’s new release “only sky,” Courtesy ECM Records.

He also unfurls shimmering atmospheric backdrops to his guitar phrasing, which surprises with sonic smears of incalculable character at any given moment. Torn consistently seems to develop and unfold his pieces with a composed, if idiosyncratic, sense of purpose and form, though he sometimes rides a jazzy swagger.

“Was a Cave… There” sounds like a cave that was…opening with echoes of a small tonal explosion, then a sequence of thick, sonic streaks, whirls and echoes that seem to breathe with a shared life force.  Around the three-minute mark, an enchanting circle of sound begins repeating, counterpointed by a more shaker-like texture. Over this, he finally layers spectral swatches of industrial noise.

On the tune “Reaching Barely, Sparely Fraught,” his broad melodic gestures have a slow, stately elegance that may charm even those who prefer mellow acoustic music.

So what are some of his secrets? On only sky he uses guitars, oud, loops, and effects pedals.

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David Torn, Photo © Claire Stefaniat

“In some real ways I don’t think of myself as a “real” guitarist,” he says, but rest assured, Torn can do many things that a “real guitarist” cannot, or wouldn’t even imagine.

Torn explains that he “regularly abuses the instruments as an excuse, a conduit for creating music based upon summoning often poly sonic (and, polytonal) atmospheres, textures and all manner of moods. And I’ve discovered a pallet that calls for the regular usage of ‘interrupted devices.’ For example, sampling and/or processing Tim Berne’s alto sax – via my guitars pickups and mics (then heard through my amplifier, mixed with the guitar sounds) — while in the midst of a so-called guitar solo.”

“Or bad electric guitar noise (like a 60-cycle hum, or a crackling cable, or a sliver of semi-chaotic singing bird feedback) might be folded into a repetitive rhythm guitar part, or included as a distinct component clearly compositional intent…”

Torn puts words together a bit like he put sounds together, but his greatest gift is clearly the guitar in his hands. So perhaps it’s best to let his music wash over you, and come away cleansed, yet a bit older and more experienced, in the sense that Jimi Hendrix famously queried about.


This article was originally published in


Guitarist Manty Ellis tells all about Milwaukee jazz back in the day


Manty Ellis

Manty Ellis is a central figure in modern Milwaukee jazz history as a guitarist, bandleader educator and music shop owner.

As noted in a previous Culture Currents blog, his style is deeply grounded in Wes Montgomery and John Coltrane, yet his muscular, rhythmically charged inventiveness draws parallels to James “Blood” Ulmer and  legendary Canadian guitarist Sonny Greenwich.

He co-founded the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music’s renowned jazz program with Tony King and has performed with numerous jazz greats, including Sonny Stitt, Eddie Harris, Stanley Turrentine, Frank Morgan and Richard Davis and taught such celebrated Milwaukee natives as Brian Lynch, Carl Allen, Sonya Robinson and Jeff Chambers. He’s been a recipient of Arts Midwest’s jazz master award and, at 80, remains very active on the local scene.

More recently, Ellis began laying groundwork for the Jazz Foundation of Milwaukee, based on the successful model of The Jazz Foundation of America. Incorporated in 1990, the national organization formed to address the urgency of helping elder jazz musicians in need. This is pertinent in light of our troubled economy and the fact that so many jazz musicians go without adequate health insurance or job security through most of their careers. 

Ellis also hopes the new foundation might it strengthen the local jazz scene through outreach events.

Though times have changed, for a perspective on Milwaukee’s jazz scene — what it was to understand what it is and might become — Ellis proves an invaluable wellspring of knowledge.

Several younger jazz musicians — trumpeter Jamie Breiwick, pianist Mark Davis and guitarist Kenny Reichert — sat down with Ellis recently for a remarkable, eye-opening interview that probed the veteran musician’s extensive historical knowledge of the city’s jazz scene. The question and answer-style interview is presented in two parts. It traces the arrival and impact of important jazz figures like Buddy Montgomery, Melvin Rhyne and Frank Morgan. Also, in Ellis’ telling, you discover that Milwaukee provided the first gigs for two internationally famous jazz musicians, Herbie Hancock and Ramsey Lewis.


The late alto saxophone great Frank Morgan is among the musicians who lived in Milwaukee that Manty Ellis reminisces about in his interview. Courtesy

Ellis also understood, and sometimes witnessed, much of the backroom dealings that impacted the jazz scene in the ’50s and ’60s, including club owners and other figures allegedly connected to the Mafia, which he discussed especially in part two of the extended conversation. A non-musical revelation is that Ellis is a cousin of sharpshooting Stephen Curry, point guard of The Golden State Warriors, and recently voted the NBA’s Most Valuable Player for 2014-15.

These are Ellis’s recollections largely unedited and unverified. Nevertheless, the general outline and dynamics he sketches are Milwaukee jazz history that rings true and lend a distinctive character to a city jazz scene that’s long gone under-appreciated.

Breiwick, Davis and Reichert performed a distinct service to Milwaukee culture by documenting Manty Ellis in this important artist’s late phase of his career.

Here’s part one of the interview, posted on Breiwick’s blog:

Here is part two of the interview:…/…/manty-ellis-interview-part-two/

A third part of the interview will be posted on Breiwick’s blog and on Culture Currents soon.