Tyshawn Sorey and the Long Game

Tyshawn SoreyPillars (Firehouse 12, 2019)
Tyshawn Sorey and Marilyn CrispellThe Adornment of Time (Pi Recordings, 2019)

sorey-pillarsIt took a while for me to dig into Pillars (Firehouse 12, 2018), the nearly four-hour, three-part composition that earned Tyshawn Sorey the No. 1 spot in the Free Jazz Collective’s top albums of 2019. The scope is daunting, and so is that ominous black cover. It felt like a commitment.

With Einstein on the Beach, I listened sequentially in fragments. Pillars doesn’t seem as well suited for that. It does break into three distinct parts — a concession to the physical limitations of CDs, sure, but Sorey takes advantage by ending each disc with a trademark blare, a single note from dual trombones (Ben Gerstein and Sorey), patterned in slow, synchronized arcs, followed by a telling silence.

Pillars develops slowly, but it is neither all-slow nor all-quiet. It’s built of jarring contrasts, with near-silent passages next to bursts of loudness. We rarely hear the entire eight-person band at once, if ever. They appear in fragments of different character. Strident horns and electric guitars seem to embolden the surrounding stillness. Later, a passage of nurturing acoustic guitars serves as a balm. The quiet parts dominate in memory, though, and sometimes the busy passages seem to exist in service to the looming quiet. Even the quick and nervous parts hover patiently.

But make no mistake, there is noise, from cacophonous group explorations to a pure noise solo of crunchy, industrial electronics. Some of the composed parts resemble a sternly edged minimalism — such as the opening moments, where Sorey, alone, plays an impossibly long snare roll in the vacuum of space.sorey-adornment

The Adornment of Time uses some of the same tools as Pillars. It features just two musicians: Sorey on drums and percussion, and Marilyn Crispell on piano, playing what appears to be an improvised 74-minute piece. But it has a like-minded attention to the long game, flowing on a geologic, “macro” scale.

Even more so than PillarsThe Adornment of Time conjures vastness, enhanced by the same strategy of unsettling contrasts. Out of near silence, Sorey will strike one intensely loud drum beat and let the sound quickly decay, smothered by the weight of the surrounding air.

The music acoustic but other-worldly, with long rumbles and cavernous groans carrying the action in some stretches, building up a ruckus before tamping back down. Late in the piece, a playful streak emerges as Crispell starts wandering inside the piano — tapping wood, scraping strings. The endgame begins with slow, plaintive piano chords — a return to crepuscular daylight — followed by a final frenzy.

One key to The Adornment of Time is that multiple payoff moments light the way. Pillars is similarly rewarding but the scale makes it harder to grasp the whole narrative. I’m still working on it while admiring the expanse that Sorey has created.

Halvorson Octet

Mary Halvorson OctetAway With You (Firehouse 12, 2016)

halvorson-awayThis time, it’s an octet.

Mary Halvorson‘s band, once a trio with Ches Smith (drums) and John Hébert (bass), was supposed to stop growing at the septet phase, but then she encountered pedal steel guitarist Susan Alcorn. The result is another fine album of compositions where Halvorson creates uplifting tunes with rich arrangements for the four horns and generous spaces for thrilling solos.

Often, the compositions germinate from Halvorson’s penchant for spidery single-note lines. The horns team up to overlay those patterns, or to cut across them, creating a textures. Halvorson told The New York Times that her solo guitar album, Meltframe, pushed her to think about the music in more orchestral terms, and she’s applied those learnings effectively with this band.

Given the players involved, all of whom have established themselves as bandleaders, you can see why Halvorson was enthused to bring the septet back. Jon Irabagon and Ingrid Laubrock bring some ferocious sax solos, and Jonathan Finlayson (trumpet) and Jacob Garchik (trombone) add a glinting bite to the music.

The upbeat title track kind of parallels the band’s evolution. It starts with the guitar-bass-drums trio playing what’s almost a doo-wop tune, with Halvorson’s guitar chattering over a catchy chord progression that eventually twists away from the norm. As the theme repeats, the horns enter in two layers — one countermelody, one backing harmony, for a nice dramatic effect. Then Alcorn gets a spotlight, adding a touch of mystery.

 
I have to admit, the opening theme of “Away With You” doesn’t quite click with me. It’s elegantly and smartly arranged, especially the two layers of horns, but the main theme itself leaves me flat, which makes the whole structure less compelling. The spaces that follow, though, use the band efficiently — open spaces for solos to shine and for comping players like Alcorn to add some special frills.

Overall, though, I really like the way Halvorson puts the band to use. A track that really succeeds for me is “Spirit Splitter,” which includes into stone-skipping horn countermelodies and thickly built harmonies. In a thrilling sequence, the song pits eerie, rubbery guitar chords behind a furious sax solo (Irabagon, I think) with other horns joining one by one for a sense of acceleration.

Getting back to Alcorn: Her presence on the album is often subtle. She uses her guitar in off-kilter ways for a theremin-like touch, providing a nicely contrasting companion to Halvorson’s guitar. I like the way they dance in unison on “Sword Barrel,” slowly in the intro, and then in a jumpy way later on.

A free-jazz setting suits Alcorn nicely, as shown in her tangled solo on the spacious “Fog Bank,” or her plaintive trio with Halvorson and Hébert to start “The Absolute Almost.” A complete piece in itself, that trio intro comes to a peaceful, satisfied conclusion, then gives way to the horns, in sun-through-clouds flourishes backed by pulsing guitar chords.

Mary Halvorson and Her Even Bigger Band

Mary Halvorson SeptetIllusionary Sea (Firehouse 12, 2013)

Wow. In a septet context, Mary Halvorson’s music gets all warm and cozy.

That might be an impolite thing to say in avant-garde circles, but listen to the billowing horns in the title track.

Source: Firehouse12; click to go there.

A lot of Illusionary Sea is like that: lovely sounding horns and quilts of melody, but enough room for Halvorson’s prickly guitar grunge. Richly melodic elements were present with her quintets — “Hemorrhaging Smiles” on Bending Bridges (Firehouse 12, 2012) or “Crack in the Sky” on Saturn Sings (Firehouse 12, 2010) — but to my ears, they’re amplified with the expanded horn section of the septet.

The eccentric guitar lines that made Halvorson’s trio such a delight are still there. But listen to the almost circus atmosphere early in the guitar solo on “Smiles of Great Men (No. 34).” The horns add a bright sound, and Halvorson plays along with a swinging melody before taking the song off the rails.

Halvorson even shows her hand at traditional jazz comping on “Four Pages of Robots,” setting down the backing chords while one horn solos. Of course, that mode doesn’t last, and as the horns wind down the piece, Halvorson obscures throws sheets of guitar spackle at the melody. That’s one of Illusionary Sea’s best tricks: mixing jazz horns with attack-mode guitar in a way that makes sense.

So, when I talk about the music being “nice,” it’s less about losing edge and more about gaining depth. The compositions are still rooted in avant-rock guitar sketchings, but they’re fleshed out with sophisticated horns — a step further toward the jazz side of the spectrum. The ensemble’s progression from trio to quintet to septet seems like a reflection of Halvorson’s desire to say more with the music.