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.

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.

Tyshawn Sorey on Shuffle

So, I was listening to Tyshawn Sorey‘s Oblique I (Pi Recordings, 2011) on shuffle play — a tool I’ll often use when I don’t have more than 10 or 15 minutes to listen to music.

tyshawn-obliqueTracks 10 (titled “Thirty-Six”) and 8 (titled “Twenty-Five”) came up first. They happen to be the only two where John Escreet plays Fender Rhodes electric piano rather than acoustic piano, and they follow a similarly sparse strategy.

The transition between them was pretty cool. I’ve edited it into the soundbite below. Keep in mind that it’s the sound of “Thirty-Six” winding down followed by “Twenty-Five” making its initial explorations. It gets pretty quiet:

Well, I thought it sounded cool, anyway. Maybe you had to be there.

Closup of Oblique I cover, just becauseNow, I don’t know if the two compositions would truly work as a suite. I suppose a lot of suites operate in halves, as sides of a coin, but having gone back and listened to the combined 15 minutes again, and when you do that while thinking of the pieces as “matched,” the cohesion isn’t there.

“Twenty-five” is considerably slower and has different aims: It’s about a languid atmosphere, whereas “Thirty-Six,” for all its pensive qualities, keeps one corner reserved for flat-out blowing. “Thirty-Six” starts with Rhodes floating up some chords against Sorey’s drumming but then the Rhodes springs into in an attack-mode solo as Sorey fires sparks at the kit. Loren Stillman’s alto sax appears after about four minutes, adding new color with the sudden splash of dye thrown into water.

These are the only two tracks with Rhodes, so they needed to be spaced apart on the album. And I think they’re well served by being later tracks, due to their deliberate pacing and their long stretches without the sax/guitar front line.

To state an old lesson in an old-fashioned way, you make some fun discoveries when you take time to listen to Side 2.

If you’re wondering about “Side 1,” meaning the complex and, yes, oblique composing and the drum bombardment you’d expect from Sorey, Oblique I does deliver. Not every track carries the battle-stations urgency of “Twenty,” which opens the album…

… but you still get plenty of dynamic interplay and soloing. The modern and challenging compositional elements are sometimes overt (horn/guitar unison lines) or latent (you get the feeling something organized is happening but can’t pinpoint it).

It’s thoughtful music that still gives the players a chance to howl. Tints of Steve Coleman, Henry Threadgill and Anthony Braxton — all namechecked in Sorey’s liner-notes essay — are evident. He also lists Bartok, Schoenberg and Stockhausen as influences.

Here’s a beefy compositional segment from the piece, “Forty.”


Ellery Eskelin in Times Square

Monday night was a rare chance for me: some downtime in New York City. The choices for music shows are overwhelming. But once I discovered there was some actual free jazz in a Times Square venue, I had to show up, just to show some support.

Well, that, and to see Ellery Eskelin for the first time in about a decade.

It was the debut of a new series, whereby Roberto’s Winds will be bringing jazz to the Limerick Bar, the upstairs room at Rosey O’Grady’s 46th-Street restaurant. Most of the music will be on the straighter side, but they took a nice chance by kicking off the series with Eskelin. Or, maybe it wasn’t such a chance — Eskelin is a well known name by now (heck, it brought me to the place, didn’t it?). He brought in a new trio with Gary Versace on organ and Tyshawn Sorey on drums.

I got there early enough to eavesdrop on Eskelin talking strategy with the band. “If you hear a tune, just go with it,” and “So, this is basically an improv gig.”  I wasn’t trying to listen in, but it’s a small and cozy area, and very few people had arrived at the time.

As expected, then, the show stuck mostly to jazzy motifs but coloring outside the lines quite a bit.  Eskelin opened things by soloing himself, going a few minutes before Sorey joined tentatively. Versace really got things going by pulsing out some bass notes on the organ, setting up a kind of rhythmless groove that the group could ride for a good long time.

With the parameters set, the trio locked in for the rest of the show. That first long piece hit some energetic highs and turned out very successfully. They started a second piece in a mellower tone, veering into a kind of improvised ballad that built up in intensity and volume. Sorey went absolutely nuts for one long stretch, snapping at the drums and cymbals with impossibly fast arms. He can be an inferno when he wants to.

The crowd was sympathetic, but you didn’t get many outbursts of applause or whooping, even though many, many moments deserved it. Chalk it up to the venue — friendly place, but plush. With people eating dinner, it seemed more polite to save the applause for the ends of pieces. The one exception was during the closing piece, a straight-jazz improvisation where Eskelin turned in a crowd-pleasing, crescendoing solo. Big applause there, some of it pent up from not applauding at key points of other pieces, I’d think.

Eskelin will be appearing with Sorey and guitarist Mary Halvorson at The Stone on June 17. That should be a treat.

As for Rosie O’Grady’s itself, the food is the usual Irish/British fare you’d expect, in a serious restaurant setting. You can get fish and chips, of course, but it’s mostly a traditional meat-and-potatoes place: shepherd’s pie, beef stew, and the like. Hardy food for absorbing those Guinesses you’ve been knocking down.

The night had a second set, with saxophonist Hayes Greenfield, but I didn’t stick around.  The chance to catch something more “outside” on the Lower East Side beckoned.  I’ll be writing that up separately.

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.