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The ever-adventurous Tyshawn Sorey takes an unexpected turn as he brings his aesthetic rigor to an acoustic piano trio playing jazz standards and classics.
“I’m not an avant-gardist at all.”
Drummer-composer Tyshawn Sorey makes that declaration early on during our conversation at a coffee shop in the Philadelphia suburbs, where he’s lived for the past two years. It isn’t a surprising claim, exactly, given Sorey’s longtime aversion to genre conformity. But the one constant throughout his musical endeavors — which range from jazz to contemporary classical to electronic music to opera — is his insistence on stretching the boundaries to their extremes. To many, that would be the very definition of avant-garde.
“My attitude has always been that I want to do whatever I want to do and not have to be labeled,” Sorey insists between bouts of sneezing, as violently allergic to pollen as to pigeonholing.
Not that a single label would suffice to cover Sorey’s work, either individually or in the aggregate. As one of modern jazz’s most acclaimed drummers, he’s worked with singular artists such as Vijay Iyer, Steve Lehman, Roscoe Mitchell, Kris Davis, John Zorn and Anthony Braxton.
As a leader, he’s crafted works that bring the rigor and expansiveness of new music into a jazz context, from the staggering minimalism of 2009’s Koan (482) with guitarist Todd Neufeld and bassist Thomas Morgan, to the monumental scale of his nearly four-hour 2018 masterwork Pillars (Firehouse 12), where duration and the glacial unfolding of sonic movement become an element in the compositions themselves.
As a composer of concert music, he’s written pieces for classical and contemporary chamber ensembles including Alarm Will Sound, the International Contemporary Ensemble, the Seattle Symphony, and DACAMERA, which recently premiered Sorey’s “Monochromatic Light (Afterlife)” in Houston’s Rothko Chapel. He’s currently Composer in Residence with Opera Philadelphia, for whom he produced two video works during the pandemic and will ultimately unveil a large-scale multimedia piece that, in typically defiant spirit, he predicts will be “not necessarily a traditional opera, but something along the lines of opera.”
Given the radical nature of so much of that work, the drummer/composer’s new album, Mesmerism (Yeros7), might be his most surprising venture yet, if only because it so nearly resembles a straightforward jazz standards album. The trio date, with pianist Aaron Diehl and bassist Matt Brewer, is an LP-length session featuring tunes by Horace Silver, Muhal Richard Abrams, Paul Motian and Duke Ellington, as well as honest-to-god standards “Detour Ahead” and “Autumn Leaves.”
“Playing standards is natural for me, and something I’ve always done,” says Sorey, who turns 42 in July. “But no one ever asks me to do it. So rather than sit here and complain about my phone not ringing for these types of performances, I decided to just do my own. Not only that, I wanted to do it on my own terms.”
Sorey’s “own terms” translated into something of a challenge for his gifted bandmates, who were convening for the first time as a trio when they recorded Mesmerism in May of 2021 at Brooklyn’s Bunker Studio. Brewer is a longstanding collaborator, dating back to a session with saxophonist Steve Lehman in the mid-2000s at the bassist’s apartment.
“One thing I remember about that rehearsal is that Tyshawn wasn’t looking at any of the music,” Brewer recalls, “and it was really challenging music. He had everything memorized already, and I remember feeling like maybe these guys had called the wrong bass player for the gig. I’ve gotten better at playing challenging music since then, but we were all in our early 20s and Tyshawn already had all that stuff together.”
The album marks Diehl’s first time playing with either Sorey or Brewer. The pianist interviewed Sorey as part of a series of pandemic-era conversations conducted online for the Washington, D.C., art museum The Phillips Collection.
“I’m mesmerized with the range that Tyshawn has musically,” Diehl says, inadvertently punning on the album’s title. “He’s someone who has an astounding capacity to internalize music of all sorts, whether it’s Morton Feldman or Elvin Jones. And he has the ability to then translate that into his own language.”
“He’s one of the few people that actually can do everything,” continues Brewer, who enlisted Sorey for his own 2016 Criss Cross release, Unspoken. “He’s super swinging and can play on the most complicated music. One of the most important [considerations] for me is playing with drummers that have an identity, and you can always tell that it’s Tyshawn, no matter what sort of music you’re playing. He’s such a broad musician and has so much knowledge in so many areas that you know he’s going to find a way to make your music sound good.”
Sorey holds his trio mates in similar esteem. Choosing the right collaborators for Mesmerism was a guiding principle, and he’s determined now to make the band an ongoing concern. Given the exploratory, inventive and nuanced take on the repertoire that makes up this album, the group has the makings of an interpretative unit that could develop along the lines of Keith Jarrett’s lauded Standards Trio with Gary Peacock and Jack DeJohnette.
“I wanted to do this with people who I know can do it very well and with whom I share a relationship,” Sorey explains. “I didn’t want it to turn into some type of jam session situation. I didn’t want the music to be over-rehearsed, but I wanted to construct some pretty intricate road map arrangements for the group to play.”
The tricky part was that Sorey’s road map took the form of roughly sketched yet circuitous directions. “All he told us was that he wanted to play standards,” Diehl says. “I thought he would have a lot of prepared arrangements for me and Matt to look at, but that was not at all the case. We showed up at my apartment in Brooklyn a day before the session and he basically dictated these arrangements. I certainly don’t have the capacity to internalize all of that, so I recorded the session and stayed up until two in the morning making sure I had all the twists and turns down.”
“Tyshawn had the arrangements in his head, and they were all very specific and pretty challenging,” Brewer agrees. “I think it was easy for him to keep straight, but we don’t all think like Tyshawn.”
Clearly, that sense of disorientation was something that Sorey was cultivating with his approach to the recording. He trusted that Diehl and Brewer would rise to the challenge, but also wanted the challenge provided by the unfamiliar, intricate arrangements to add a thrilling sense of uncertainty to the proceedings.
“I wanted them to have to think on their toes when the opportunity came,” Sorey admits. “The goal of making this record in the first place was to find things in the material together that we can explore further and turn into something that’s our own while still wanting philosophically to play the song, at least in some way. We’re walking a very fine line between original composition and reinterpretation of standards. We’re not trying to prove something or try to ‘deconstruct’ these songs. We’re just trying to be as honest and as focused as we can with the material we’re dealing with.”
"It makes you hyper-focused the entire time you’re playing,” Brewer says. “If I let up or if my mind wanders for even a moment, then I’m unsure of where I am in the arrangement. I get the sense that Tyshawn has that kind of focus all the time, every time he plays.”
A prime example of Sorey’s unique take on the music is “Detour Ahead,” where his arrangement draws inspiration equally from the tune itself, from Bill Evans’ famed interpretation, and from the suggestion of the title. In Sorey’s conception, the tune constantly and unpredictably modulates from key to key, taking “detours” from the key they start out in.
Paul Motian’s “From Time to Time” provides another instance of extramusical considerations impacting Sorey’s approach to the tune. The trio does little more than hint at the actual melody of the piece, which the late drummer recorded with Bill Frisell and Joe Lovano on 1992’s Motian in Tokyo.
“The interest in melody is ever-present in Paul’s drumming,” Sorey says. “In every single recording of his that I’ve heard, no matter the situation, I see Paul Motian as more of a melodic percussionist than some drummer who’s just hitting things. And as a composer, the way that he creates melody is oblique, but he writes these melodies that are always somehow memorable no matter how disjunct they may seem. So I wanted to make that as clear as possible with the idea of melody being a central focus — not necessarily in terms of playing the melody of the song, but playing melodically.”
Motian’s influence has loomed large for Sorey of late, as he has boldly stepped into the breach left by the drummer’s passing and taken his mantle in the renowned trio with Frisell and Lovano. The three have played the Village Vanguard twice and plan to make it an annual occasion, and recently recorded their first album, set for release on ECM sometime in 2023.
“It was an honor for me to take on that chair,” Sorey says. “It was scary at first; people are going to come in with expectations. They’re probably wondering if I’m going to try to sound like Paul. And Paul would not appreciate it if I went up there and tried to do what he did.”
While no one would mistake Sorey’s playing for Motian’s, they do share common principles that raise the question of influence and personal inspiration. Both are capable of ferocious power but use space and silence with a keen sense of drama and atmosphere. The difference is that Motian played with the lithe agility of a dancer, whose strength fueled grace rather than force; Sorey is more of a tightly coiled spring, its reserve held in a fraught tension, constantly threatening to explode.
Each of the composers represented on Mesmerism reflects Sorey’s own make-up in equally enlightening ways. The album-closing pairing of Duke Ellington and Muhal Richard Abrams is especially telling, two lodestars of the music who were foundational in vastly disparate ways, Ellington bridging the exhilaration of the swing era with a sophisticated compositional approach, Abrams forming the AACM to incorporate a full-spectrum view of musical traditions into a hybrid way forward.
“I’ve always had the idea to be in dialogue with my influences,” Sorey says. “It doesn’t matter how disparate or how separate they are. For example, Anthony Braxton was very much inspired by the post-John Cage continuum while always keeping some influence from Paul Desmond in his music. You can’t get any more opposite in terms of what influences should carry a saxophonist’s work, but there you have it. In the same way, I was inspired very much by Morton Feldman and Karlheinz Stockhausen and Paul Motian and Elvin Jones and Jack DeJohnette. It doesn’t have to be mimetic. I don’t necessarily copy their way of doing things, but if you look beyond the surface one can see that I’m in dialogue with all of these influences, all together.”
He’s now passing that perspective, which he inherited from mentors such as Braxton, George Lewis and Fred Lerdahl, to a new generation via his professorship at the University of Pennsylvania, another reason for his move to the Philly area. Ask Sorey for the composers who are most affecting him today and he can rattle off a long and imposing list: Austrian composer Olga Neuwirth; the silence-focused composers of the Wandelweiser Group, particularly the Swiss clarinetist Jürg Frey; the Brazilian postminimalist Marcos Balter; and his UPenn colleague Natacha Diels. But he positively lights up when mentioning the new avenues being pursued by his students.
"For me, teaching is learning,” he says. “I don’t try to like make my students fit into my personal aesthetic. I’m more interested in seeing how they are going to challenge themselves to bring about some interesting developments.”
With that sentiment, the conversation comes full circle. Whether leading a skilled trio through unorthodox explorations of standard repertoire or encouraging fledgling composers to impose and investigate their own musical obstacles, Sorey is fascinated not by genre or by tradition but by pursuing instinct and curiosity into the unknown. What could be more avant-garde than that? - Shaun Brady
Photos by John Rogers.