CAMBRIDGE -The bartenders and waitresses at the Regattabar must have gotten quite the shock Thursday night. The Charles Hotel jazz club is normally filled with creative yet tasteful music - traditional-type jazz with chord changes, melodies, and solos. Rhythms you can snap your fingers to. Themes you can hum.
On Thursday night, all hell broke loose. David Torn, a ridiculously adventurous electric guitarist who sculpts his sound with electronics, brought his quartet Prezens to the club, and a heavy metal concert nearly happened. It was loud and crazy. To compare these musicians to a rock band, however, is to do them a disservice. They play a brand of free jazz that's primal and sophisticated.
Torn, alto saxophonist Tim Berne, keyboard player Craig Taborn, and drummer Tom Rainey engaged in extended improvisations that developed without predetermined structures or song titles. Their atonal, polyrhythmic jams reeked of chaos, and yet there was, in fact, structure beneath all the madness. Rainey bashed out irregular rock beats. Taborn stabbed the keys of his Fender Rhodes, eliciting blurts and beeps. Berne blew furiously, sometimes in circular patterns, sometimes randomly. Torn - wearing a Russian fur hat - did everything to his guitar short of ripping off the strings. When he ran out of phrases, he dragged the pick up and down the neck, manipulating the noise by twiddling the knobs on the bank of equipment that separated him from the audience.
It was the kind of music that could make a laid-back jazz aficionado go out and break stuff.
Torn is touring in support of an exceptional album, also called "Prezens," that ranks among the most invigorating jazz records of 2007. Compared to his show, the album is tame. Live, these guys never let up. They often seemed to be going in four distinct directions at once, but when they coalesce, the groove tethered them.
They didn't solo - not in the normal sense of the word, where one player steps to the forefront and the others lay out or comp - but they did have their moments. Midway through the first half-hour piece, Berne blew a stellar minute of smart, sharp cascades while Rainey urged him with an insistent rhythm. Moments later, Torn picked up the thread, playing just one note and bending it in half with the whammy bar, then playing one more note and bending that one in half, and then another. A lot of thought was put into this great and wonderful mess.
Steve Greenlee can be reached at email@example.com.