Tyshawn Sorey Plays It His Way

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“I’ll produce my own projects,” says drummer and composer Tyshawn Sorey. “I’ll do it my way, and I’ll do it well.”

(Photo: John Rogers)

When Tyshawn Sorey turned 40 a few months into the pandemic lockdown, he decided henceforth to focus on more explicitly foregrounding hardcore jazz roots within his musical production.

“COVID furthered my intention to make only the music I want,” Sorey said in late February in the basement of Roulette, Brooklyn’s venerable, essential experimental music venue — where he and Adam Rudolph, his partner in a recent spirit-raising trio album with Dave Liebman titled New Now (Meta) — had just rehearsed three accomplished percussionists in the highly calibrated gestures and symbols that constitute their respective extended improvisational conducting languages. In a few hours, they’d engage in an improvised duo set on various drums and percussion, electronic processing and piano, and then guide the ensemble through a spontaneously directed piece.

During the drum duo, Sorey displayed the full measure of his choreographic conception, his phrases sometimes tsunami-intense and overwhelming, sometimes delicate and spare.

His commanding execution of abstract, structurally cogent improvisational ideas conceived in service of the music earned him first-call stature during the ’00s through the ’10s with forward-thinking bandleaders like Butch Morris, Steve Coleman, Muhal Richard Abrams, Vijay Iyer, Dave Douglas, Henry Threadgill, Steve Lehman, Michelle Rosewoman, Myra Melford, Kris Davis and Ingrid Laubrock. Meanwhile, Sorey was presenting his beyond-category, transidiomatic compositions (as well as his skills on trombone and piano) on a series of recordings — That/Not (2007), Oblique–I (2011), Alloy (2014), The Inner Spectrum Of Variables (2016), Verisimilitude (2017), Pillars (2018) and Unfiltered (2020) — that spanned Anton Webern-esque spikiness, Morton Feldman-esque stillness, exhilarating outcat jazz, AACM-descended soundscapes and card pieces and collective improvisations.

During the ’10s, Sorey earned a doctorate of musical arts in composition from Columbia University, a MacArthur “Genius” Grant and, in 2018, a tenure-track assistant professorship at University of Pennsylvania. He concomitantly broadened his scope, composing fully notated and improvisationally oriented works for orchestras of various sizes. In the process, Sorey, raised in a Black working-class neighborhood in Newark, New Jersey, became a celebrated, widely reviewed figure in highbrow contemporary music circles, even the subject of a 6,000-word profile in the New York Times Magazine.

“I’d been paid for two years of premieres that still had to be completed for performance,” Sorey said of his July 2020 mindset. “Who knew what would happen?” Whatever the case, Sorey was determined to establish “a situation where I’m playing jazz standards — or jazz, period. Even though I’ve been known to do that extremely well, I haven’t gotten calls to do it. I won’t sit and cry by the phone, waiting for it to ring. I’ll produce my own projects where I do that, I’ll do it my way, and I’ll do it well.”

The spring 2023 release Continuing (Pi) is the final album of a trilogy documenting Sorey’s pursuit of that endeavor in conjunction with pianist Aaron Diehl, another distinguished pan-genre practitioner interested in connecting the languages of jazz and the Euro canon. As on the 2022 releases Mesmerism (Yeros7 Music) and The Off-Off Broadway Guide To Synergism (Pi), Sorey showcases his profound connection to the jazz timeline and his deep connection to the drummers who’ve fueled it. In the process, he upholds both the tropes of mobility (“keep them guessing”) and individualism (“that’s Tyshawn Sorey”) that have defined each step of his musical journey.

On Mesmerism and Continuing, Sorey, Diehl and bassist Matt Brewer function as a standalone trio, exploring deep cuts by Horace Silver, Ahmad Jamal, Wayne Shorter and Harold Mabern as well as songbook chestnuts like “Detour Ahead,” “Autumn Leaves” and “Angel Eyes.” Russell Hall plays bass on The Off-Off Broadway Guide To Synergism, a triple CD culled from a five-night run at the Jazz Gallery led by protean alto saxophonist Greg Osby, with whom the trio functions as an exuberantly freewheeling, interactive rhythm section. It dropped in late 2022, contiguous to a much-lauded, sold-out run of Sorey’s multidisciplinary Mark Rothko tribute Monochromatic Light (Afterlife) at Park Avenue Armory, directed by Peter Sellars.

On the surface, Sorey and Diehl might seem an oil and water matchup. Now 37, Diehl toured with the Wynton Marsalis Septet directly after graduating high school. On three Mack Avenue albums, he interrogates ragtime and stride piano, bebop, the blues and the classical orientation of John Lewis and Roland Hanna on their own terms of engagement, showcasing his thorough, individualistic assimilation of Marsalis’ “all jazz is modern” mantra. Diehl has also sustained a flourishing career concertizing on repertoire spanning Philip Glass to Prokofiev to Gershwin.

In late 2017, Diehl heard Sorey play drums with pianist Vicky Chow, a respected contemporary classical specialist, in a concert of John Zorn’s music. Not long thereafter, he sent Sorey a complimentary note on Instagram. Dialogue ensued. In the spring of 2020, Diehl publicly interviewed Sorey (via Zoom) for the Phillips Collection.

“Tyshawn’s wide palette of musical knowledge, interests and understanding fascinated me,” Diehl said. “People use the phrase ‘blurring the lines’ between musical disciplines, but he’s really been doing that, synthesizing all his influences into his own compositional output in fascinating ways. He’s brilliant, and I wanted to get to know him.”

Sorey’s feelings were reciprocal, but he was concerned Diehl might consider him too “out.” Eventually, he recalled, “I mustered the courage to ask Aaron to play. Without hesitation, he said he’d be down to do something.” In May 2021, they entered Brooklyn’s Bunker studio for a maiden voyage. “I wanted to create an environment where Aaron was comfortable but also have my aesthetics in the air, if not necessarily in the forefront. Aaron likes to be super-prepared; I wanted to go into the studio and develop it there to get the freshest possible result.”

He sent a song-list, and called a rehearsal at Diehl’s apartment the day before the session, sticking the drum parts on Diehl’s couch. “I thought Tyshawn would have written arrangements, but he thought up roadmaps that he dictated after we ran down the tunes,” Diehl recalled. He consulted his iPhone for the notes he’d scribbled as Sorey broke down “Detour Ahead.” “Measures 11 to 12 half-time; we vamp those measures. Bridge, half-time melody, omit last 8, straight to bass solo. Bass solo, top of form in normal time. Two choruses. Truncate last bar of last 8. Piano solo, first chorus, play in A major except modulate to D-flat major.”

“I came up with this arrangement instantaneously, inspired by Matt’s and Aaron’s playing through the song,” Sorey explained. “I’ve listened to Bill Evans’ timeless, classic interpretation countless times since high school. I approached ‘Autumn Leaves’ the same way, thinking about rhythm and melody operating within different forms of time — half-time or double-time or a third of the time — which happens before we get to the solos, which are played over the regular form.”

“Before the rehearsal, Aaron sent me a voicemail where he played piano on Paul Motian’s ‘From Time To Time’ and then hung up. At rehearsal, I told him, ‘This is exactly how I thought this arrangement would go.’ At the studio, after we heard back the first take of ‘Enchantment,’ the opening song, I said, ‘I told you.’ We’d never played a single note together, and there was initially some nervous energy. But then it was as though we’d been playing together for a decade.”

Mesmerism also features Muhal Richard Abrams’ “Two Over One,” which Sorey knew both from Sight Song, Abrams’ 1977 duo recital with Malachi Favors, and from Greg Osby’s Zero, which, he says, “blew my mind” as an undergraduate at William Paterson College. “I’d been playing in school ensembles and jam sessions that didn’t push the envelope, and the harmonic sophistication and ensemble interplay made this exactly the music I was hearing in my head,” Sorey said. “I’d wanted to play with Greg ever since.”

Fortuitously, Osby invited Sorey’s trio to join him at DROM, on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. “We loved it,” Sorey said. “Aaron has incredible ears; he was able to adjust quickly. We’d been constantly communicating about music, almost every day, and I’d been pointing him to Greg’s records and AACM stuff. I already knew Greg’s music inside-out — his experiences in Special Edition with Jack DeJohnette, who’s one of my biggest heroes, how he worked with virtuosos like Eric Harland and Rodney Green, how artful and chance-taking his rhythm sections were.”

Osby met Sorey in 2008 when supervising saxophonist Meilana Gillard’s Day One for his Inner Circle imprint. “Tyshawn’s approach was completely different than a lot of drummers in his generation,” Osby said. “I found him totally complementary and welcoming. He didn’t call unnecessary attention to himself. He plays with a large kit, an array of cymbals and various sticks, mallets and hybrid brushes that he switches in the middle of songs to get different colors. It’s a wash of sound, as though he’s playing timpani, glockenspiel, marimba, vibraphone, the whole percussion ensemble of an orchestra in one kit, giving you this wealth of possibility. He might do a whole song playing with his hands. He’s spontaneous in the moment, propulsive, without stepping on the soloist’s feet. He’s a thinking, very studied musician. His perspective aligns with experimentation, working things out, trimming the fat and accentuating things that often are diminished. I consider him a composer first.”

The quartet reconvened at the Jazz Gallery in March 2022, relying on their collective knowledge to flow seamlessly from one song to another, as Osby had done on the 1998 Sweet Basil gig captured on Banned In New York, another Sorey lodestar. “I wanted to play things we could internalize and get to the core of without a lot of reading,” Osby said. “I told them, ‘If I use some of these songs as an interlude and launch pad to go into something, listen to me — don’t get into your own thing.’ I wanted to sound very free and compositional, as if we were writing these songs on the fly.”

“I’ve had my years of producing long CDs and long works and long processes,” Sorey said after the Roulette concert, from his home near Philadelphia. “Mesmerism let me get away from that. Nobody has time to listen to so much.” The four tracks on Continuing, recorded last December, are much longer, culled from Sorey’s original 10-tune song list. “I thought we’d record all the tunes and still have a short CD,” Sorey said. “But when we finished ‘Angel Eyes,’ I said, ‘Let’s go home.’ We’d played so much music, we didn’t need to do more.”

As signified by a photo in the CD package, Sorey conceived Continuing as a tribute to the late pianist Harold Mabern, a crucial mentor at William Paterson. The session ends with a spare yet relentlessly funky rendering of Mabern’s “In What Direction Are You Headed?” from Lee Morgan’s final studio album.

“He was largely responsible for my growth, not only as a musician but as a person,” Sorey said. “Sometimes after school I’d ride the bus with him to Manhattan, and he’d talk about players who inspired him and different people I should be listening to — and also a lot of tunes! In 2015, he came to the Village Vanguard to hear my trio with Corey Smythe and Chris Tordini play music from Alloys and part of Verisimilitude. I thought he’d hate it because it’s so far from the music he was into. But to my surprise, he was super-encouraging. It made me emotional. He said: ‘I’m so proud of you, to see how far you’ve come in this music, and your knowledge of so-called traditional things. Keep doing what you’re doing.’”

On Continuing, the trio honors Mabern’s exhortation. On extended treatments of Ahmad Jamal’s “Seleritis,” which transpires to a hallucinatory slow-drag “Poinciana” groove, and the noir ballad “Angel Eyes,” addressed molasses-slow, the players develop the narrative arc with extreme patience and deliberation that evokes the stillness and incrementalism of Feldman’s sound world. Each holds up their end with independent yet synchronous ideas, eschewing call-and-response, in line with the aesthetics of mentors like Roscoe Mitchell and Butch Morris.

Does Sorey’s roadmapping on the trio albums mirror the extended improvisation system (he calls it Autoschediasms, after the ancient Greek word for “to extemporize”), inspired by Morris’ conduction process and Anthony Braxton’s Language Musics, that he deployed on the Roulette concert?

“Yes, in the context of working with notated musical materials,” Sorey responded. A more elaborate Autoschediasm experience occupies the second disk of the 2021 release For George Lewis/Autoschediasms (Cantaloupe), on which Sorey guides Alarm Will Sound, the esteemed 20-member chamber orchestra, through two precise, kaleidoscopic 25-minute journeys, one of them recorded on video chat.

“For George Lewis” is one of several “tone parallels” (Duke Ellington’s term) by Sorey that embody the essences of personal heroes. In a four-minute YouTube clip of For Roscoe Mitchell, cellist Seth Parker Woods methodically cycles a rubato phrase as the Seattle Symphony Orchestra plays in the lower register of their instruments.

“I’m dealing with my compositional aesthetics: breathing, letting sound be itself, a strict harmonic approach,” Sorey said. “But I’m also recalling my performance experiences with Roscoe’s interest in extremes, like circular-breathing for five minutes on sopranino saxophone. The piece begins with Seth very high on the fingerboard. He has to repeat one single note with a good sound for a long time. The physicality of doing that on the cello, without exhaustion, interested me.”

Extreme imperatives also animate Adagio (For Wadada Leo Smith), an alto saxophone concerto performed in March by Tim McAllister with the Atlanta Symphony. “The piece is full of long alto saxophone lines where the saxophonist doesn’t breathe for as much as 30 seconds. It’s more about preparing for how much breath to take in before you play than the actual breathing. That comes from high school, when I played long tones on trombone, working on getting a big sound, no matter what dynamic level. I wanted to get an orchestra gig and play classical music.”

“For George Lewis” signifies on Lewis’ “The Will To Adornment,” which Sorey witnessed at its 2011 premiere. “George and Butch Morris are two of the most important people in my life,” Sorey said, noting that when Lewis first heard him in Italy in 2003 with Morris’ conduction ensemble, he immediately dubbed him “a future co-conspirator.”

“That piece brought me closest to what I was looking for in my own compositional practice. Each player has to be aware of their relationship to the others, or they’ll be completely lost in the chaotic sound world that George established. Much of it deals with non-traditional ways to play an instrument — violin glissandos, growls on the trombone and brass, multiphonics on the woodwinds, double-stops on the strings.

“Near the end, a jazz-like melodic soundscape emerges from this soundscape. The harmonies slowly shift back and forth and the meters are changing, which destabilizes the ensemble so you won’t notice a particular pulse. The music evokes a joyful, busy energy. I wanted to explore those ideas, express that joy, but with my own aesthetic, in a meditative space, also reflecting trauma and grief.”

A hands-on mentor to Sorey as he pursued his degree at Columbia, Lewis described the dropped-jaw quality he can elicit among even his most accomplished peers. “I remember performing with Tyshawn and John Zorn at the old Stone, and thinking that what he was doing — coming up with very meaningful tiny sounds that he knew just where to place — was amazing,” Lewis said. “I was trying to write a lot of percussion music, and realized he knew a lot about it. I thought about how I could learn to do some of the ideas he was doing. He was very generous with his time and attention.”

Lewis’ own tone parallel to Sorey is “Calder” (2015), “a mobile piece” for trombones, piano and percussion, which “Tyshawn plays equally well.” The musicians, guided by cards containing different instructions, move from place to place on a large stage covered with percussion instruments where they play their impression of the card.

“Tyshawn knows a lot of different traditions of music-making,” Lewis said, before recalling a Vijay Iyer Trio concert with Sorey and Linda May Han Oh in February. “At a certain point they played something that sounded like Roscoe Mitchell’s ‘Nonaah.’ The concept sounded like it sprang forth from Vijay’s head, like Athena springing forth from the head of Zeus — and Tyshawn was right there. Their encore was ‘Night And Day’ in 7/4 with a bridge that sounded like ‘Giant Steps.’

“Tyshawn does these things easily or effortlessly. When I say ‘effortlessly,’ I don’t mean without thinking. You hear an incisive intelligence in whatever he’s doing, a logic built up over time that you follow. It always surprises you. It’s like listening to a Beethoven piano sonata. At first, you’re thinking, ‘Why is he doing that?’ But after a while, it becomes clear why he’s doing it and what it really means, and then you wonder what other layers are hidden that you’ll have to think about long after the concert is over.”

“Mobility is not adhering to a particular model that society categorizes,” said Sorey, who spent May composing three commissioned works, including Requiem For A Plague Coda, which will be paired with a movement from Hans Werner Henze’s Voices at a festival in Finland, and a piece, dedicated to Peter Sellars, for piano, string quartet and three percussionists. The Sorey-Diehl-Brewer trio is booked for several European concerts in November, and will then record “several albums of material.”

Sorey was gratified to see more University of Pennsylvania students “wanting to work with me specifically to investigate the broad field of composition from an Afrocentric lens as well as Eurocentrically,” he said. “More people are interested in post-genre music. After seeing people like me perform, they don’t see themselves as classical composers, or even electronic composers, but are interested in all areas of music, with no fixed idea of what composition is.”

Reinforcing the maestro’s point was a one-off gig in June at Manhattan’s NuBlue with under-30 rising stars James Francies and Immanuel Wilkins, whom Sorey first encountered as teenagers.

“Tyshawn is a genius,” Francies said. “This music has a lot of different time signatures and mixed meters. I sent it to him a few days before the gig. We didn’t rehearse, but he memorized and internalized everything, as if he’d come up with it. It felt like we’d been on tour. Immanuel and I were laughing at how amazing he is, not only playing the drums, but how much music is in there. He doesn’t waste notes or concepts. Everything is done with a purpose. He’s one of the greatest living composers and he’s in my top five drummers of all time.”

“I’ve always been known as a physical player, and it was a physical gig,” Sorey said. “I haven’t done music like that, with intricate forms and synthesizers, for a long time. It was refreshing to be in a situation where I give a million percent of myself — which I always do — to playing music I haven’t encountered before, and to be able to really hang with them. You’re up there, saying, ‘Yeah, I can still do this.’” DB



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