Tyshawn Sorey: Composite Reality
Sorey has also pointed out an irritating conundrum in the criticism of his musical choices: the scrutinizing of the lack of swing and "traditional" jazz elements in his music has sometimes locked him out of participating in that music. "For me," said Sorey, "to put out the records that I put out and to play the way that I do, I never really get to operate within the sphere of swinging music. That's one of the ironic parts about it. Even having come up in jam sessions where there were a lot of African-American musicians playing swing and a lot of bebop vocabulary, I never get to do that, ever. The only music that I do is the stuff that you hear about. I never get the opportunity to sit down in a context where I get to play time, make the band sound good and essentially swing my nuts off. A lot of people say, 'Oh you play all that weird shit, I'm surprised you even want to do this.' It's documented on record that I can do that, but nobody knows about it because they put me in this box of 'weird music.' People are going to position me in certain ways. I can only do the music that I believe in. If it involves me swinging on 2 and 4, then so be it; if it involves me barely playing the drums on a CD for an hour, that works too."
Sorey has pointed out similar issues with being a black composer. "African-American composers that go outside of their idiom are frowned upon. Having come from the so-called jazz tradition, it was the thing that was closest to me as far as lineage. That doesn't mean that I have to be positioned there forever. When I started to explore experimental/trans-European music, right away people were surprised that I was checking that music out. For me to do a 43-minute piano work that's an homage to Morton Feldman, that shocked some people. As far as I know, no other drummer in the history of this music has done anything like that. For some people, it seemed like I was a person deliberately trying to become a traitor of some sort. But I love that music just as much as I love the music of Max Roach or William Grant Still or Hale Smith. It's funny; you don't really hear much talk about the next, say, new music Indian composer or the next great composer from South Africa. It seems like the white composer is positioned very highly as the intellectual technocrats, someone who knows a lot about voice leading and the music that came before him, whereas black musicians have the so-called "feeling," but no intellect. Someone who has more 'spirit' to what he does than the white composer. It's unfortunate because there are black intellectuals out there putting out valid work that we don't hear about."
Sorey's lasting musical relationships have been with musicians who have been as adept at creating unique musical languages out of diverse influences as he has. His consistent band mates, including but not limited to pianist Kris Davis and saxophonists Ingrid Laubrock and Steve Lehman, have utilized Sorey as a percussionist, composer and musical thinker. For Sorey, the quality of accepting, synthesizing and re-forming diverse musical and extra-musical elements is a necessary function for playing the types of music he aspires to do.
"They expect a musician that's accepting of composite reality," says Sorey. "We can no longer have a thing where we function within a fixed parameter in terms as what we do as improvisers. I think that's what a lot of those guys expect and not just in a musical plane, either. Watching someone like Steve Coleman work, for example, has been very influential to me. When I started with his group, I came at it like 'Okay, where do I come in?' or 'When does this beat happen?' but then the more I worked with him, the more I understood he was interested in a whole lot more than just music. Yet, everything else he was interested in tied into music somehow. Like boxing for example, I never thought of boxing in terms of music. The only thing I would have thought of as far as musical qualities in boxing would be the rhythm. But he has this whole essay about the relationship. The same goes for his interest in astronomy and astrological relationships. I think these guys want someone who is interested in these things and those functions on a practical and a musical level. I won't say 'religion,' but I think certain ways of thinking, like Daoism, Buddhism, all of these ways of being, can contribute also.