Tyshawn Sorey’s Epic

Tyshawn SoreyThe Inner Spectrum of Variables (Pi Recordings, 2016)

Quoting George Grella on Sequenza21 and The Big City (link temporarily unavailable):

Alloy is on a lot of jazz lists, but I can’t put it on mine: [Tyshawn] Sorey is most closely and accurately defined as a jazz musician, but this is an album, like his others, of his compositions, and there is so little jazz concept and aesthetic in them that they are pretty much sui generis.

That’s the explanation of why Sorey’s album landed on Grella’s 2014 Best-of list for post WWII composition. Grella goes on to discuss Alloy‘s curious lack of time, likening Tyshawn Sorey to John Cage or Morton Feldman but with a compositional persona of his own. The music floats, guided not by Sorey’s drum kit but by Cory Smythe’s patient, drifting piano.

sorey-innerJazz fans know Sorey for his thunderous drumming in a variety of bands, but his own albums reveal he’s a serious composer. Serious enough that he’s on track to earn a Ph.D. in composition from Columbia University in 2017. Serious enough that Wesleyan University has already hired him to replace Anthony Braxton, who recently retired.

Sorey’s latest, The Inner Spectrum of Variables, uses piano, drums, and a quartet of strings to invoke the frills of traditional classical music, the sawing and hard-digging enthusisasm of new classical, and even, yes, elements of modern jazz. Spanning six-plus movements and more than two hours, Inner Spectrum is an epic not only in length, but in feeling. The music is a journey, and the weight of it builds up as you go.

Even if you don’t listen to the whole thing in one sitting — and I didn’t, I admit — you should listen to it in order. You’ll catch the contrast between the oh-so-classical elements of “Movement II” — tropes such as weepy violin vibrato (Chern Hwei Fung) and piano trilling (Smythe) — and the more modern atmosphere of “Movement III,” with Smythe and Sorey hammering out piano/drums Morse code with a backbeat.

You’ll also get to feel the transition from the surprise ending of “Movement III” to the dour, heavy viola (Kyle Armbrust) to kick off “Movement IV.” And you’ll hear “Movement V” in its proper place, with a grand string segment that makes for a climactic moment in the narrative, a mid/heavy pulse layered with forceful improvising. It’s a majestic mid/slow segment that’s just a little heavy, just a little sweet, and it works best if you’ve been along the entire journey up to this point.

“Movement VI,”is a slow heavy conclusion that’s appropriate for Inner Spectrum‘s scope — but the whole thing wraps up with a reprise of “Movement I,” which I’ll let you discover for yourself. That theme is a surprise at the beginning — not at all the mood I was expecting — and it’s a welcome visitor at the end.

Wedged in there is an unnumbered “Reverie” moment that is as dreamy and surreal as the title suggests, opening with a corridor of gongs and building up to a frenzied violin cadenza.

Inner Spectrum is less experimental than Sorey’s previous albums. The challenge he seems to have set for himself is to amalgamate some older styles of Western music into his work. The results are colossal, and worth hearing.

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