Tyshawn Sorey's "Oblique-I"
I first became aware of Newark-born composer-drummer-pianist-trombonist Tyshawn Sorey back in 2009, when I reviewed Fieldwork's Door, on which he drummed, and Koan, his second album as a leader, for Fort Worth Weekly. Of the former, I wrote, "Sorey comes as close to dominating the proceedings here as Tony Williams did on Eric Dolphy’s Out To Lunch and Miles Davis’ Filles de Kilimanjaro," while Koan, I noted, was "clearly a composer's record, a work of minimalist formalism."
Sorey combines the cerebral with the visceral like no one since the teenage Williams (who recorded the reflective Life Time at the same time he was propelling Miles Davis' quintet into the stratosphere), and like Williams, on his own dates, he's a composer first, with an interest in exploring the concepts of space and repetition pioneered by Morton Feldman. His first album, 2007's prodigious That Not, was a double CD that offered an additional 70 minutes of music via download. Its highlights included a 43-minute Feldman homage, "Permutations for Solo Piano." Sorey's also an in-demand player: the website for Pi Records, which released Sorey's new album Oblique-I back in September, notes that he's appeared on more of the label's releases than any other drummer. Besides Fieldwork, he's also a member of Paradoxical Frog, another cooperative trio.
Sorey's interest in composition has been nurtured in academia by prolific reedman, composer, and avant-garde icon Anthony Braxton at Connecticut's Wesleyan University, where Sorey earned a master's degree, and at Columbia University, where he's currently enrolled in a doctoral program under the tutelage of trombonist and Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians eminence George Lewis. The ascendancy of the AACM, of which Braxton was also a member, to the academy means that certain collegiate jazz programs, rather than training further legions of Maynard Ferguson-aping scream trumpeters or Wayne Shorter-inspired composing saxophonists, are committed to continuing the creative concepts of the '60s and '70s jazz avant-garde -- a welcome development that your humble chronicler o' events, at least, couldn't have foreseen.
To these feedback-scorched ears, Oblique-I -- I believe that's a Roman numeral and not a first person singular -- recalls the masterworks of the avant-garde wing of the early '60s Blue Note stable: not just the aforementioned Dolphy and Williams sides, but also classics like Andrew Hill's Point of Departure and Sam Rivers' Fuschia Swing Song. Those records still sound vital half a century after their release, when all of the principals that produced them, I was recently astonished to realize, are deceased.
The ten pieces on Oblique-I were inspired by a 2002 conversation Sorey had with Braxton, written between 2002 and 2006, road tested at venues around New York City, and recorded in a single 13-hour session in June 2011. Watching Youtube videos of this group performing back in October, one notices that the musicians are all reading charts with a high degree of concentration. Make no mistake: This is challenging music. In his liner notes, Sorey acknowledges the influence of Braxton, Mingus, Schoenberg, Bartok, Threadgill, and his former bandleader Steve Coleman, rejects the separation between composer and improviser, and indicates that his pieces are intended to be transformed in performance.
"Twenty," "Forty," and "Twenty-Four" feature jagged, angular melodies over ever-shifting soundscapes, with solo voices rising above, then falling beneath the roiling rhythms. "Eight," "Twenty-Five," and "Thirty-Six" are reflective, abstract pieces (the first of which Sorey cryptically cites as an example of "strata logics in relation to layered rhythm and tempi"). "Thirty-Five" juxtaposes slowly unfolding chords with contrasting melodies played by saxophone and guitar. "Fifteen" is a tour de force of shifting moods and tempi, at first relentless, then pausing a moment to regroup before taking off in another direction, gradually building in intensity to a new apex, then winding down to an abrupt conclusion.
Throughout, altoist Loren Stillman is the dominant solo voice, even performing unaccompanied on "Eighteen," while pianist John Escreet is a wonder on acoustic, Rhodes and Wurlitzer instruments. Guitarist Todd Neufeld employs a crystalline tone and precise attack to convey his ideas, and particularly shines on the turbulent, churning "Seventeen," where he plays skronky, spiky lines on an acoustic axe in the manner of Marc Ribot, or Liberty Ellman from Henry Threadgill's Zooid (who coincidentally mixed and mastered the album). Even at his most thunderous, Sorey subordinates his considerable technical prowess to the demands of his material. With Oblique-I, he confirms his status as an artist to watch.