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.

Tyshawn Sorey’s New-Music Piano Trio

Tyshawn SoreyVerisimilitude (Pi Recordings, 2017)

sorey-versCompared with The Inner Spectrum of Variables, Sorey’s epic ensemble work from 2016, Verisimilitude is more contained, played only by a trio: Chris Tordini (bass), Cory Smythe (piano) and Sorey himself (drums).

It isn’t a jazz piano trio. The five-minute opening, “Cascade in Slow Motion,” is conventional enough in its contemplative manner — or you could convince yourself such, at least. But the more ambitious tracks depart starkly from the piano trio format, as you’d hope.

The 18-minute “Obsidian” starts with sounds that don’t seem like piano, bass, or drums. Instead, there’s a ghostly ringing created by a bow — either bass harmonics, cymbals, or both. “Obsidian” is a spacious, patient piece, with the drum kit often limited to small taps. Sorey introduces wood blocks and metal chimes as well — including a nice passage around the 7-minute mark, accompanied only by piano. Later on, though, “Obsidian” gets stormy, recalling the steel sounds of Fieldwork, the trio of Sorey (drums), Vijay Iyer (piano), and Steve Lehman (sax). “Obsidian” is loud but purposeful, with a stern finale that’s more regal than frenzied.

And then there’s the 30-minute “Algid November.” The sound is again sparse at first, unfolding in tiny motions surrounded by savory emptiness, and eventually building into a probing improvised segment that could be considered “normal” for a modern jazz trio. It’s quite nice.

When “Algid November” gets torrid, building off a sour-toned, low-register piano riff, it becomes a percussion showcase, built on a sour-toned, low-register piano riff and long drum rolls and cymbal waves, wood blocks, and one very long, cathartic gong crash that completes the segment, plunging us back into silence momentarily. It’s never a frenzied piece, but Tordani keeps the energy level elevated with a wiry bass ramble, pulsing around a small range of notes. There’s plenty more to come after that: slow bells and quieter bass, like calm sunshine after a rainstorm, but with a mood that’s still unsettled.

The whole album draws from Sorey’s work in new classical music, of course, but there’s an especially strong dose of “classical” in the brooding “Flowers for Prashant,” which combines images of desolation and moments of spare beauty.

It’s still fun to watch Sorey go nuts in a jazz context, of course. But his path into composing has been gratifying to follow as well, from NYC downtown jazz into these more contemplative projects. He’s building a fascinating career.

About Year-End Polls

One thing Pi Recordings has going for it is exposure. They send CDs out to radio stations, college radio in particular, and manage to snag reviews in most jazz publications, it seems. The investment has paid off, making the label an NPR darling.

So, it’s getting less and less surprising to see Pi stuffing year-end Top 10 lists, such as the recently released Fifth Annual Village Voice Jazz Critics’ Poll, a big-deal poll that’s often stacked on the side of creative music.

I’m not trying to say Pi’s only trick is to get in people’s faces. The music is good, and no amount of promotion could gain Pi its following otherwise. Plus, Pi’s artist list includes innovative and noticed new artists (Rudresh Mahanthappa, Vijay Iyer) alongside venerable free-jazzers (Henry Threadgill, whose name graced Pi’s first two albums, and Steve Coleman). It adds up to that intangible quality that helps make a label stand out: a sound. Maybe I’m cheating by picking related artists (note especially the Coleman influence on Iyer and Mahanthappa), but I do think Pi has come to stand for a new type of jazz structure, one that swings with an intricate logic. That identity has led to a devotion among critics, making Pi a bit of a starmaker.

Another year-end poll regular, Clean Feed, does not service college radio, but they do seem to send out enough review copies to stay on the radar. Good thing, too, because as the Village Voice‘s Francis Davis puts it, Clean Feed is becoming the 2000s equivalent of Black Saint/Soul Note: a European label doing yeoman’s work at documenting American jazz. Again, you could argue that it’s all about the numbers game of exposure. But as with Pi, it’s the high quality of the music that keeps ’em coming back and primes critics’ attention for a CD from a new voice such as Lisa Mezzacappa’s Bait & Switch, which won Best Debut among the pollsters. (That category’s voting was sparse, but it’s still one for the “W” column. Congratulations!)

Two dozen Clean Feed CDs received votes in the Village Voice‘s poll. Smaller labels like Pi pick their targets carefully, but Clean Feed releases music in big chunks. That 24 of its albums were poll-worthy speaks to a consistency of quality.

Keep in mind, we’re talking about a poll among critics — people whose ears perk up at the news of a new Mary Halvorson release or who tear open a Threadgill package with eager anticipation. As history repeatedly proves, scoring high on the critics’ list doesn’t always pay the bills. Still, the recognition has to be nice — and it’s gratifying for us listeners to see these names get their deserved accolades and to have their work submitted into the debates about the year’s achievements. That’s why we like end-of-year lists, or critics’ polls, or all-star games.

Artwork lifted from azwaldo on Flickr.

Some previous Lisa Mezzacappa/Bait & Switch mentions:

  • A Farewell to the Good Captain
  • Lisa Mezzacappa’s Bait & Switch
    • Bunky Green II

      You’re about to hear a lot more about Bunky Green.

      In a genre (free jazz) where undiscovered greats are the norm, Green has been an even newer discovery than usual, for me at least.  He’s 74, so he’s no tenderfoot.  Yet, he escaped my radar until early this year, when a Do the Math blog post by Ethan Iverson all but dared listeners like me to seek out Bunky Green.

      I’ll repeat the quote: “Steve Coleman wouldn’t exist without him.” *

      Later this year, Green is going to get some serious publicity, following an album he’s releasing with Rudresh Mahanthappa on the Pi Recordings label. Mahanthappa and Pi are darlings of the college radio and NPR sets. Their stuff doesn’t exactly make the background music playlist at Target, but it gets heard and gets distributed. It gets found.

      I can understand why some mainstream audiences might not like Green. He sets up a club-jazz backdrop: airy piano chords, richly grooving bass — traditionally progressive stuff — and then blasts diagonally across it all with some ferocious soloing. It’s quiet-night-out music with an asterisk. A chill-out lounge with labyrinth wallpaper.

      Green’s solos are a delight. He’s lightning fast and deadly accurate, with a pillowy, breathy sound articulating each note in every impossible run — a masterful, light touch amid the bluster.  Not everything dimension-jumps into futuristic, Steve Coleman territory. Green plays by the regular rules when it suits him, and it still sounds like him.

      I managed to learn a little bit about Green by thumbing through the KZSU vinyl library. He’s not an avant-gardist per se; he’s more an adventurous, hard-thinking straight-jazzster.  His album Testifyin’ Time, from 1965, is quite straight and swingy.

      Places We’ve Never Been, from 1979, has more of the tilts, angles, and surprises I’d expected.  I remember the opening track, “East and West,” being a treat. But the album also has “April Green,” a mellow flight in that ’70s kind of chill vibe that I just can’t take.

      Overall: Thumbs up on Bunky Green, as a musician and as a discovery. Can’t wait for that CD. Meanwhile, I’ve also listened to his 2008 Salzau Quartet recording on Traumton, which deserves a separate blog entry.

      (* The exact Do the Math entry isn’t available as of right now; Iverson’s done some housecleaning in moving the blog to a new home.)

      Steve Lehman Infiltrates Your Brain

      Steve Lehman Octet — Travail, Transformation, and Flow (Pi, 2009)

      source: pirecordings.comThere’s a lot of publicity surrounding this album, and it’s justified. This feels like something big.

      It’s like Steve Coleman‘s music taken to a stranger, spongier dimension. As with Coleman, the machinelike quality of the music — quick-fingered, mechanical beats; precise, stiff sax lines — doesn’t take away from its soul. You want to dance, but while the beat remains precise, the rhythms inside it are dense and changing. It’s like trying to catch a river with your hands.

      The band has five horns, but the cool tremor of Chris Dingman‘s vibraphone is the defining voice, dotting the landscape like silvery beads of mercury. It’s the sound that you walk away with, and it contributes to the sci-fi feeling of the music, part of a busy and exciting future.

      (Drummer Tyshawn Sorey has a lot to do with that, too. He’s also the drummer for the trio Fieldwork; I’ve described them, and pianist Vijay Iyer, before in the same futuristic steel-and-glass terms.)

      Some of the sound is based on spectral harmony, a concept where new harmonies are built from the overtones found in the attack and decay of notes. Examples of this appear right off, in the opening “Echoes,” which uses a straight-chiming rhythm backed by really odd-sounding horns doing a low, dissonant buzz. Lehman then joins in for some gazelle-prancing soloing that dances around the lines. Weird chords abound, stretched by unusual harmonies in the sax line.

      The album ends with a coolly sinister/smooth transcription of “Living in the World Today” by GZA (a member of Wu Tang Clan), a tale told with horns babbling one or two at a time in chaotic precision.