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A Different Kind of Drummer [Part 1]: Tyshawn Sorey

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Tyshawn Sorey courtesy of PI Recordings
Photograph of Tyshawn Sorey © John Rogers, courtesy of PI Recordings

With much of the music that Tyshawn Sorey has been composing and performing one hardly expected to be confronted by – not one – but two albums that appear as if to reiterate where [in the music continuum] his musical heart began to palpitate in the way that it has. Having advanced concepts of – and interactions between – melody, harmony, and rhythm, Mr Sorey has quickly gained a genius of a sort that makes him musically prescient in the manner of Wayne Shorter. Hyperbole? Hardly so when you consider the kind of music he has been writing lately, to suit the musical character of groups as disparate as The Crossing directed by Donald Nally, the Dutch National Opera the London Sinfonietta, Mike Sopko, Bill Laswell, the Philly DJ and innovator King Britt, to name a few.

Moreover, Mr Sorey has also come to the attention of possibly one of the 21st century’s most important composers, Anthony Braxton. But as the cultural topography of Mr Sorey’s music has been born of the Blues it seemed almost a given that at some point he would return to his proverbial roots. If for nothing else, he would do so to reevaluate his relationship with the Blues. Almost by an eerie coincidence Mr Braxton once did likewise with a brilliant series of recordings for the Danish label, SteepleChase: In The Tradition [recorded in 1974/released in 1986], In The Tradition Volume 2 [recorded in 1974/released in 1987] and What’s New In The Tradition [recorded in 1974/released in 1991]. Not that Mr Sorey followed suit after the fact, but what he has done between 2022 and 2023 has been to reach for the touchstones of his cultural topography which is similar – one might add – to that of Mr Braxton.

Needless to say, no matter what the idiom in which Mr Sorey indulges his art – traditional or contemporary – the results are spectacular. There is an elemental reason for this. In his hands [and feet] the drum set becomes a symphonic instrument. Cymbals hiss and sizzle, they ring – resonant tempered brass that they are – with the steady, rippling drip-drip-drip, or trinkle, then start to go ‘tick-a-tick-a-tick-a’ as the drummer tattoos part of a melody into the rhythmic line. All this while the rattle and hum of the skin of the snare drum complement the tuned rumbling of floor and other toms, while the rolling thunder of the bass drum and the hi-hat add odd-metre, pulsating rhythmic accents – heavy and slight – entwined into [in this instance, the piano of Aaron Deihl’s] melodic, and harmonic flights. Meanwhile, Mr Sorey can play inside and outside time and still make the poetry of the rhythm sound exactly right, no matter at which interval sticks, mallets thud, or brushes may swish in circular motion as their wires touchdown.

All this while melodically and harmonically too, the music is heartachingly and quintessentially bluesy, yet seeming to break out of the prison that is tradition as the drummer re-evaluates the poetics of his Blues. And so, just like his works for large symphonic orchestras – created in the contemporary vein – so also are the recordings under review here. This series, which includes Mesmerism [PI Recordings, recorded in May 2021/released in July 2022], the seemingly epic 3-disc set The Off-Off Broadway Guide to Synergism [PI Recordings, released in November 2022] and Continuing [PI Recordings released in June 2023]. The repertoire on Mesmerism and Continuing is trio music performed by Mr Sorey, with contrabassist Matt Brewer and pianist Aaron Diehl, but the music on The Off-Off Broadway Guide to Synergism also includes the much-celebrated alto saxophonist, Greg Osby.  

There is something uniquely exciting about listening to a group of keen young musicians devouring familiar, sometimes difficult, but exciting music whole, which is precisely what the members of this trio [and quartet, in the case of The Off-Off Broadway album] do throughout the repertoire on each of the albums. So while Mr Sorey is listed as leader, each of the musicians – pianist Aaron Deihl, bassists Matt Brewer and Russell Hall, and of course, the inimitable alto saxophonist Greg Osby – brings something unique and memorable to each performance. [for example: Mr Deihl in his seemingly unending cascades of melodic inventions on Detour Ahead [on Mesmerism]. Every individual programme is hugely enterprising in every department, with musicianship released in quantum packets of energy, each with so much imagination as to be both surprising and mysterious at the same time. As to some other harmonic and rhythmic elements, just cue into Ask Me Now or let the song Odd Job roll from start to finish [on The Off-Off Broadway… album where the forces of Mr Osby and Russell Hall collide with Messers Deihl and Sorey]. And then there’s the inspired version of Reincarnation Blues [on the album Continuing].  In every instance be prepared to be melodically, harmonically, and rhythmically dazzled by how the performers invoke a savage cut and thrust in their kicking syncopations.

This impressive force is maintained throughout the repertoire and invoked not only by the rhythmists [drums and bass], but also the other performers – the saxophonist, and pianist as well. The music also swings intermittently punctuating the melodic and harmonic lines with [and at] just the right time to replace tedium with ingenuity and yet musical arrythmia [cue Mr Sorey’s rumbling efforts on Muhal Richard Abrams’ Two Over One] is key throughout these sets, the drummer embellishing the music, when you least expect it with gleaming notes played at every turn. Throughout these irrepressibly energetic sets it is not simply Mr Sorey who delivers in spades [for the rumbling sound quality of his instrument is very good too]. From end to end this is not repertoire aimed at making the listener relax. Here the motto is most definitely: None shall sleep…!

Tyshawn Sorey - Mesmerism
Notes fly off the page on the repertoire of Mesmerism by the Tyshawn Sorey Trio

Tyshawn Sorey Trio: Mesmerism There’s always a feeling when listening to the Tyshawn Shorey Trio that you are listening to notes that fly off the page – the perfect answer to the Urtext method of playing. Perhaps being intrinsically empathetic has brought uniformity of thought and instinct into Tyshawn Sorey, Aaron Deihl and Matt Brewer that allows them to play as a single entity, or maybe their unfussy intellectual approach is particularly compatible with a genre that, if done as skillfully [as these musicians perform], a concentration of all the musical ideas of each of the composers is represented here.

Either way [or more likely, both ways], this Tyshawn Sorey Trio’s playing is nearly always beyond reproach, and this contrasting array of the musicians’ individual styles and personalities brings everything – in every work – to fruition. They [the musicians] bring out with very simple clarity all of the humour and pathos, which can leave you wondering whether the music is rising or falling in the vertical plane or expanding or contrasting in the horizontal one. This makes for a deeply affecting programme. It’s almost as if these pieces were being played for the first time. And even as this isn’t so, the beautifully balanced musical arguments of this disc make it eminently desirable.   

Greg Osby stars on The Off-Off Broadway Guide to Synergism by the Tyshawn Sorey Trio +1

Tyshawn Sorey: The Off-Off Broadway Guide to Synergism The epitome of a “collector’s item” of a disc [or, in this case, a multiple-disc] has a few components. One of these is that you hear something so fresh that you feel as if you are hearing the works for the very first time, even though you are sure you’ve heard them before. All of the music on this programme fits that Zen Koan of a definition. The other component is that the music appears to be played in the moment. This is eminently true of this live programme that seems to flow – not ebb and flow, but flow – from one climactic moment to another, one melodic line after another, one harmonic variation after another, one rhythmic pulse after another.

If you think the Trio, which is now augmented by the magnificent Greg Osby on alto saxophones blows the roof off the house with Billy Strayhorn’s Chelsea Bridge, wait till you are held breathless and at the edge of your seats by Thelonious Monk’s Ask Me Now. The experience of pathos will never have felt so preternatural, so like being in an amphitheatre experiencing a monumental drama unfold. The performers pace themselves with almost interminable sanguinity, emphasising musical gestures are eloquent and whereas Mr Sorey and Russell Hall concentrate on forward motion, Mr Osby and Mr Deihl concentrate on the passionate aspects of that [forward] motion. The result is an epic performance with performances so assured, so intelligent and deeply felt that this is a disc to absolutely die for…

Tyshawn Sorey Trio - Continuing
Four classic songs are spotlighted on the album Continuing by the Tyshawn Sorey

Tyshawn Sorey Trio: Continuing When the musicians of the Tyshawn Sorey Trio [now without Mr Osby] place these four classic works under the spotlight of their pooled intelligence, whether playful [on Harold Mabern’s In Which Direction Are You Headed?], thoughtful [on Wayne Shorter’s Reincarnation Blues], or provocative [on Matt Dennis’ Angel Eyes, absent from which is Earl Brent’s lyric] Mr Sorey, Mr Deihl and Mr Brewer eschew the bright lights for a place where mellowness, intimacy and relative refinement are more obvious priorities.

These versions of the songs are among the most svelte, and most beautiful-sounding performances [bar the ones by the composers themselves] to have come my way in recent years, and I could hardly quote a more telling example of their style than the unhurried opening of Reincarnation Blues itself [Mr Shorter’s own rendition notwithstanding]. Mr Deihl’s deliciously liquid cascading arpeggios and glissandos and the gentle tremor of Mr Sorey’s drums and Mr Brewer’s contrabass tell the perfect story of music unfolding. How elegant too are the questing performances of the other pieces on this marvelous disc. This is not simply a trio performance but chamber music playing of the highest order, intense where it should be, outspoken elsewhere [also where it should be], the insolent virtuosity of each of the musicians never getting in the way of making a perfect recording, captured in the warmth of an admirable production on a label with such consistently high standards that you are wanting for the next episode of this trio before the disc is even halfway over.

Deo gratis…

Tyshawn Sorey Trio: Mesmerism

Music – 1: Enchantment; 2: Detour Ahead; 3: Autumn Leaves; 4: From Time to Time; 5: Two Over One; REM Blues.

Musicians – Tyshawn Sorey: drums; Aaron Diehl: piano; Matt Brewer: contrabass.

Released – 2022
Label – PI Recordings/Yeros 7 Music  
Runtime – 47:54

Tyshawn Sorey: The Off-Off Broadway Guide to Synergism

Music – Disc One -1: Night and Day; 2: Please Stand By; 3: Chelsea Bridge; 4: Three Little Words; 5: Mob Job; 6: Ask Me Now; Disc Two – 1: Out Of Nowhere; 2: Ashes; 3: Please Stand; 4: Three Little Words; 5: Jitterbug Waltz; 6: Mob Job; 7: It Could Happen To You; Disc Three – 1: I Remember You; 2: We’ll Be Together Again; 3: Contemplation; 4: Out of Nowhere; 5: Solar; 6: Ask Me Now.

Musicians – Tyshawn Sorey: drums; Aaron Diehl: piano; Russell Hall: contrabass. Guest Musician – Greg Osby: alto saxophone.

Released – 2022
Label – PI Recordings  
Runtime – Disc One 1:16:25 Disc Two 1:01:06 Disc Three 1:14:11

Tyshawn Sorey Trio: Continuing

Music – 1: Reincarnation Blues; 2: Seleritus; 3: Angel Eyes; 4: In What Direction are you Headed?

Musicians – Tyshawn Sorey: drums; Aaron Diehl: piano; Matt Brewer: contrabass.

Released – 2023
Label – PI Recordings [PI 198] 
Runtime – 50:37

Note: Coming shortly – Part Two of A Different Kind of Drummer: Gerry Hemingway

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