Sunday, March 10, 2019
TORU - Volumes 1-6 (Self-released, 2018-2019), Anthology 1 (Chant, 2019) ****
By Lee Rice Epstein
Something we’re coming to discover about Bandcamp as a platform for distributing music is that expectations about what an album is and when it drops are slowly being dismantled by artists who have learned different ways of using the service. In some cases, they’re creating subscriptions to deliver music directly to audiences’ inboxes. For example, Dave Douglas’s label Greenleaf opens up their deep archive for digital download and/or streaming, in addition to producing unique, subscriber-only releases. And then there are groups like TORU, a trumpet trio churning out a fantastic amount of fiery free improvisation.
The core of TORU is Sam Eastmond, Celeste Cantor-Stephens, and Andy Watts, all on trumpet, but there is no actual TORU prime, or TORU 0 recording. Eastmond, Cantor-Stephens, and Watts share an audible connection, and the continued growth of the group depends very much on the strength of their rapport. For each album released so far (and several others that I’ve heard), a guest is brought in to add a fourth voice. It feels like an extended collective is being formed, and it’s probably not far down the line before different clusters of core trio members and various guests form and re-form, whether in live sessions or on other records.
The guests themselves tease the lineup of a dream sextet: Sam Day Harmet on clarinet and mandolin (Volume 1), Mike Wilkins on sax and bass clarinet (Volume 2), Sarah Gail Brand on trombone ( Volume 3), Otto Willberg on bass (Volume 4), Moss Freed on guitar (Volume 5), and Marco Quarantotto on drums ( Volume 6). Meanwhile, the song titles give a sense of the state of this collective union: “Suicide By Society,” “ICE ICE Babycages,” “Boris the Blundercunt,” “The Laundromat of Despair On the Street of Broken Dreams,” “This Cruddy Age,” “Anxiety Now.” The cheekiness of the titles is more than a head fake, there’s plenty of joy and humor woven through the “we are screwed” anger. It’s not all doom and gloom, ye who enter can rest assured.
Albums tend to open with the group plunging straight in, as with Volume 3’s “You Are So Beautiful To Me; I Mean To Anyone Else Not So Much, But To Me” and Volume 5’s canon-esque “Piccadilly Line Schvitz.” Brand and Freed are brilliant additions to TORU, the former rounding out the brass voicing, and the latter tilting it on end with some delightfully angular phrasing. On Volume 4’s “Dostoyevsky On Ice,” the trio plays an improvised round, with Willberg’s bass occasionally dropping in with a counter-melodic run. What’s exciting on these albums is how each one’s featured guest shapes and inspires the improvisation, in its literal voicing as well as the shape of the group’s spontaneous performance. Wilkins’s Volume 2 entry has maybe the most classic free improvisation feel, with the quartet deploying a variety of mutes and extended techniques to add layers of playfulness on tracks like “Unicorn In My Balls” and “ICE, ICE, Babycages” (a standout, even as a shameful reminder of current US immigration policy). Quarantotto’s heavy drums inject Volume 6 with a lively garage-punk aesthetic.
All TORU albums are available on Bandcamp, and there are already at least another three ready to be released. Anthology 1, newly released by and Shanir Ezra Blumenkranz and Jon Madof’s Chant Records, features outtakes from each recording session. In a way, that would be a decent preview of the whole, but I’d recommend going at these in order of release, as it’s probably the best view of how quickly and radically TORU has grown and flourished.
Listen and download from Bandcamp: Volume 1 featuring Sam Day Harmet, Volume 2 featuring Mike Wilkins, Volume 3 featuring Sarah Gail Brand, Volume 4 featuring Otto Willberg, Volume 5 featuring Moss Freed, Volume 6 featuring Marco Quarantotto, Anthology 1