The composer and drummer at the forefront of the New Jazz presents his trio—but the slow, deliberate, brilliant music is much more "jazz piano trio" music. It is a soundscape of astonishing detail.
I have seen Tyshawn Sorey perform many times. Without fail, he dazzles and surprises me. We tend to think of him as a drummer in the New Jazz of this century, playing with pianist Vijay Iyer or saxophonist Steve Coleman or with any of many other musicians in New York over the last ten years. Each time you see him play, though, you are reminded that he is something beyond just a brilliant percussionist.
Sorey, now in his late 30s, recently completed a Ph.D. in music at Columbia University where he studied with trombonist and electronic music pioneer George Lewis. He also studied with Anthony Braxton at Wesleyan University in Connecticut, where he will succeed Braxton as a professor this fall. Sorey actually started his jazz studies in Newark, New Jersey’s Arts High School and then at William Paterson University’s impressive jazz program... as a trombonist. But the drums lured him along the way. He is also an accomplished pianist. And, most importantly, composer and musical thinker.
Sorey recently released his sixth recording as a leader, Verisimilitude, with his trio featuring Cory Smythe on piano (and electronics) and Chris Tordini on bass. Sorey is the percussionist and composer -- and somehow more than that. He seems like the sculptor of this music, the creator whose hands are on all its edges. Because, while you could hear Verisimilitude as latest from the Tyshawn Sorey piano trio, this is more like the latest from Sorey’s Beyond Category Ensemble.
“Obsidian” may be the best example. This 18-minute composition begins with pulsing electronics blended with percussive effects, which are soon joined by low rumbles on piano and very low, bowed tones from Tordini. Improvised or written? Does it matter? It is a mysterious soundscape that contains carefully constructed sonic details: the reverberation of a piano note is mimicked by an electronic sound; a chord from the piano contains overtones with which Sorey’s cymbal strike (a moment later) is in harmony; toy piano, percussion, grand piano, and cymbals play in as much precise coordination as any string quartet. But the composition develops into something colossal as well as Smythe’s piano plays crunching half-note chords below Sorey’s rolling toms, simulating a weather pattern that is both threatening and roilingly beautiful.
The pleasures of “Obsidian” will remind some listeners of the kind of all-ears-in collective improvisation The Art Ensemble of Chicago used to specialize in. And that is fair -- Sorey’s training, roots, and collaborations include not only Anthony Braxton but also Roscoe Mitchell -- founding figures in the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians who did so much to make that kind of “jazz” into the highest art.
But here’s the catch: Verisimilitude falls just as easily into a different tradition -- the classical world’s “new music” that we associate, for example, with New York’s Bang on a Can ensembles. Indeed, pianist Cory Smythe is probably better known for his part in Bang on a Can, the International Contemporary Ensemble, and his duets with violinist Hilary Hahn than for his work with Peter Evans, Nate Wooley, and Steve Lehman. Bassist Chris Tordini frequents ensembles led by Andy Milne, Jim Black, and Greg Osby -- but he may be better known for playing particularly smart pop/jazz/folk with the Becca Stevens Band. This trio, simply put, has range. Sorey’s music is sowing a valley between different worlds. But it is doing it with such grace and substance that this New Jazz feels utterly convincing.
For “jazz” listeners who may find the tempos here very slow yet not sufficiently swollen with pretty chords or arcing melody, I recommend an attentive listen to the collection’s longest performance, “Algid November”. The spare opening, which contrasts high and low tones across the piano and bells, gives way to a section that -- relatively speaking -- grooves. Beginning around the seven-minute mark, Tordini is given leeway and rhythmic encouragement to goose the band, and at 10:45 or so the trio starts working out a ballad feeling that has the push-pull pliancy of swing. Sorey includes the kind of “military” snare patterns that once defined Tony Williams, and Smythe alters his phrasing so that he sounds lyrical like Keith Jarrett even if his note choices are less conventional. This material doesn’t convert Versimilitude into a “jazz” record, but it blends so seamlessly with the other material as to raise the question: what makes something “jazz” anyway?
There is invention and canny musical deliberation apparent in every minute of this recording. The superb, recent feature on Sorey in the New York Times by Giovanni Russonello talks about the composer and improviser's astonishing musical facility -- being able to "read over a score once and know it by heart” and therefore to ask his trio to reimagine the music in novel ways, including "to play certain measures backward, or in a scrambled order”. As you listen to “Flowers for Prashant”, for example, you can hear the way in which each gesture of melody is part of a system of interest. The simple tune that emerges on piano after the introduction has a childlike, sing-song quality, but Sorey asks it to evolve into a slow march of sorts, with Smythe's left hand playing a heavy, alternating set of chords. Could this have developed in the opposite direction?
The opening paragraph of the Russonello’s Times article quotes Sorey: “I never listen to music passively” and concludes that his own music “demands full engagement”.
I agree, but I feel compelled to add that Tyshawn Sorey’s music is not forbidding, not atonal , and not confusing. If you are tempted to hear this music, don’t worry that it will be noise or that it will -- to paraphrase every critic of modern art, ever -- sound like "my kid could do that”. Rather, it is precise and technically impressive. But it takes its time developing interest and it develops interest not by being catchy or danceable or connected to other things that you already love. It is art that connects different modes and emerges new, astonishing, but -- yes -- requiring your patience. Not patience to tolerate something bitter, but patience to think, and to remain open, and to feel things in the moment.
Be the tortoise, not the hare, to put it in archetypal terms. Let Tyshawn Sorey’s art catch up to your ears and then repay your patience a thousandfold.