Just because there are no drum solos doesn't mean that percussionist/composer Tyshawn Sorey is self-effacing in his leadership debut. Sorey has a strong conception which pervades every nook and cranny of this two disc set by his year old quartet. He has garnered critical acclaim for his work as one third of Fieldwork alongside Steve Lehman and Vijay Iyer, as well as working with Steve Coleman, Dave Douglas, Muhal Richard Abrams and Wadada Leo Smith. Though best known as a drummer, Sorey who also features on piano, composed all but two of this bakers dozen, incorporating elements of jazz, contemporary classical and experimental idioms.
Sorey's quartet is rounded out by Ben Gerstein on trombone, Corey Smythe on piano and Thomas Morgan on bass, each active performers in NYC's contemporary music scene. Varying combinations explore a wide range of pieces both notated and freely improvised. Overall the dominant feel is one of control and restraint, reminiscent of an ECM session (a comparison reinforced by the pristine recording) though with the emphasis on texture rather than melodic development. Everyone acquits themselves with confidence, though this isn't an exhibition of technique, but you sense that they are reining in their capabilities to suit the concept.
"Leveled, the opening collective improvisation, epitomizes the group's approach: lots of space, deliberate placement of sound, whether breathy trombone or shimmering cymbal, slow to medium tempo, interspersed with spurts of more intense activity, but not so much as to detract from the nervy, almost static feel.
The four "Templates are all of a piece, each fading in over a continuous crackle, like an old 78 rpm record, featuring the same steady off kilter rhythm by the piano trio, with varying degrees of garrulousness from Gerstein's brass, and crashing arrhythmic accents from percussion or piano, before fading out again without resolution.
"Permutations for Solo Piano is likely to cause the most divergent views, being a repetition of a single chord, minimally varied over the course of its forty two minute duration. It would seem that Sorey subscribes to John Cage's dictum that "if something is boring after two minutes try it for four. If still boring, then eight, then sixteen, etc... Eventually one discovers that it is not boring at all." The cumulative effect is hypnotic, with the sustained ringing overtones assuming more importance than the notes themselves. But one man's meditative is another's lugubrious, and I can't imagine that too many people will revisit this piece on a regular basis.
Elsewhere, "Sacred and Profane and "Cell Block each clock in at just over the twenty two minute mark. Smythe channels Jarrett-like introspection on the former, before it moves through a pointillist passage to repeated peaks of intensity, ending with Gerstein propounding the understated theme over a stately rhythm. A Satiesque motif is given a leisurely examination in the latter: a study in dynamics, seasoned by occasional flurries of more urgent three way invention, though never straying far from the thematic material.
"Four Duos was the high point for me, given a group credit, but in fact featuring each member twice, courtesy of overdubbing. I don't know how the piece was constructed, but to me it is reminiscent of Bill Dixon's "Octette #1 from his classic Vade Mecum II (Soul Note, 1997), which utilizes a similar strategy, and likewise revels in randomly colliding trajectories. Smythe plays Wurlitzer here but the electronics are absorbed seamlessly into the fabric of the piece. One of the Gersteins' vocalized trombones adds a more abrasive edge to the proceedings, which coalesce into a satisfyingly coherent whole.
In spite of the conceptual breadth, I don't really get much of this recording and it ultimately left me unmoved. Nonetheless I'll be looking out for what Sorey does next as you can be sure that whatever it is, it won't be the same old, same old.
Track Listing: CD1: Leveled; Template I; Sympathy; Permutations for Solo Piano; Seven Pieces for Trombone Quartet; Template II.
CD2: Sacred and Profane; Template III; Four Duos; Cell Block; That�s a Blues,Right?; Template IV; Commentary.
Personnel: Ben Gerstein: trombone (CD1#1-2, CD1#5-6, CD2#1-3, CD2#5-6); Corey Smythe: piano (CD1#2-6, CD2#2, CD2#4-7), wurlitzer organ (CD2#3); Thomas Morgan: bass (CD1#1-3, CD1#5-6, CD2#1-6); Tyshawn Sorey: drums (CD1#1-3, CD1#5-6, CD2#1-6), piano (CD1#1, CD2#3).