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Think You've Been Productive in Quarantine? Try Checking in with Tim Berne and David Torn

Robert Lewis
David Torn and Tim Berne

A few months ago, saxophonist-composer Tim Berne and guitarist-producer David Torn were on the road with their band Sun of Goldfinger when coronavirus restrictions went into effect.

They briefly soldiered on, playing a scheduled show at Firehouse 12 — for a livestream audience, to an otherwise empty room — and then returned to their respective homes. At which point they faced the same question as everybody else at the time: what am I supposed to do now?

For Berne, the answer came right away. “I always had this fear that I would become complacent at some point,” he muses, “and all of a sudden, I got this urge — like, this panic to do stuff.”

The drive to create, unencumbered by outside pressures or the mechanics of touring, reminded Berne of his early career, when he started and ran a shoestring indie label called Empire Records. “I like the guerilla part of it,” he says. “I’ve always been attracted to benign dictatorships versus working for others.”

He set about making his first-ever solo saxophone album, Sacred Vowels, recording it in a guest bedroom of his house. And he goaded Torn into making a solo guitar album, FUR/TORNBoth albums, digitally released on May 1, are completely riveting — and not just as audio souvenirs of home quarantine. They stand as valuable additions to both artist catalogs. And as it turns out, that was just the beginning.


Last week, I hopped on a video call with both artists for this guest episode of The Checkout. We talked about those new albums as well as a slew of archival Berne releases that Torn mastered — starting with the four out today.

They range from Cause and Reflect, a 1998 studio album by Berne and cellist Hank Roberts, to a 2010 concert recording by Berne and pianist Matt Mitchell, titled 1. Also: a rough-and-ready live 2019 recording by the collective Broken Shadows, and Adobe Probe, a spectacular 2009 live album by a Berne-led septet. (I speak from experience; I was at that show, presented by Ars Nova Workshop in Philly.)


“Every one of them, I want to go, ‘Holy s--t, have you heard that?’” says Torn of these albums, speaking as their mastering engineer. A Berne collaborator since the earliest days of Screwgun Records, which succeeded Empire, Torn shares the love of a knotty challenge, and an embrace of practical limitations. “I see this as an immensely fruitful time,” he says.

As if the new crop of releases weren’t enough proof of that, there’s also a live Sun of Goldfinger album due out in July, among other things.

Berne says of Torn: “I’m going to force him to make a record every two months for the rest of his life.”

Everybody laughs. But you get the sense he isn’t kidding.

To purchase the albums mentioned in this story, visit the Screwgun Bandcamp page.

The Checkout is produced by Simon Rentner. Subscribe on SpotifyStitcherApple Music or Google Play.

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A veteran jazz critic and award-winning author, Nate Chinen is editorial director at WBGO and a regular contributor to NPR Music.