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Tyshawn Sorey: Alloy

John Ephland By

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Tyshawn Sorey's Alloy is, if nothing else, a wondrous reconfiguration of the so-called jazz piano trio. Some may quibble as to the nomenclature but drummer Sorey's four through-composed compositions are pure jazz expression, if what we mean by that term is melodic, harmonic and rhythmic improvisation within a larger context.

That Sorey is yet another drummer who composes is no real surprise. The history is long in that department. What is novel, though, is the radically understated ways in which he uses his drums to augment the fluid, almost nature-like playing of both pianist Cory Smythe and contrabassist Christopher Tordini with his own. Like a spell being cast, each piece connects with the other yet is totally other, the continuity stylistically obvious from track to track. Antecedents might be a wee bit of the early trio music from Cecil Taylor, and the first two Blue Note recordings of Tony Williams, both of them emerging artists in the 1960s. In Williams' case, the fellow drummer created his music using a variety of instruments, but the point here is that his compositions and the execution were not only unconventional and unexpected, but also untethered from any kind of inherent instrument mandate, this prodigy somehow free to experiment in, outside and beyond his drum set, offering a refreshing break from whatever might've been considered mainstream jazz during the period.

Williams' esthetic was and is akin to what Sorey has accomplished here with Alloy, as Alloy (Sorey's first as a leader since 2011's Oblique-I) is performed via others with an openness and freedom that also casually strays from conventional avant-garde tendencies (if there is such a thing). The uneven yet still gentle opening "Returns" prepares us for what is to come, sudden bursts surrounded by silence and a kind of meditative yearning, the 15-minute composition lean on structure and loaded with subtle flourishes. "Movement" takes its 21 minutes to become a showcase for Smythe and his now-germinating piano, chords and single lines tracing steps that lead his bandmates through a dream-like sequence both full of nuance and the occasional chromatic gesture, Sorey's drumming spare in its punctuations, Tordini's plucks reminiscent of Gary Peacock's interactions with Williams' delicate touch from that drummer's Spring as well as Life Time. In a sense, this is classical music, very loosely recalibrated to fit the strictures of jazz, the implied blues and swing, the waywardness stated, or perhaps actually understated. As "Movement" moves toward its end, Smythe's ascending and descending notes create an aura of distant charm and mildly, bubbly fragmentation, Tordini's rumbling bass and Sorey's mallet rolls providing a kind of orchestral backdrop to Smythe's reaching in the direction of the song's mysterious, elongated core.

Sorey's approach to space and nuance is suddenly upended as the trio ventures into "Template," Sorey's rock-like solo irruption ramping up the energy leading toward a frolicking funkiness as the trio regroups, Smythe's repeated chord figures and Tordini's anchoring of those chords relatively static yet somehow still fluid. It's minimalism with an attitude, that part of the dream where the inherent energy of this music is allowed to disperse. The album's resoundingly assured and profoundly unweighty 31-minute haunting "A Love Song" (Spring's offerings include Williams' "Love Song") begins with more delicate dissonance, Smythe's lovely angular lines both comforting and unsettling, suspended but seemingly seeking some kind of grounding, a place to go if not land. Or maybe he's simply content to explore Sorey's composition as would a child first encountering the piano, seeking to discover its potential in a very limited, modest way, over and over again. The patterns are simple yet thoroughly eloquent, Smythe's gravity defying grace notes both alluring and unsentimental, fascinating all by themselves, the restraint heard not as restraint but as like a river's calm and knowing cresting. And, as Tordini's rusting, faint arco creeps in, there's the reminder that this is still a trio date, so to speak. Indeed, Tordini's aches of a bow once again become plucks even as Sorey enters with more delicate flourishes, a jazzy combination of skin and cymbal totally resonant with their surroundings. Here is the most obvious swing to be heard on Alloy, the trio walking the line between total 3/4 groove and a memory of what came before. The easygoing dust eventually settles, and what remains are Smythe's now-familiar opening lines, all alone once again.

And so, as we round the bend, we suddenly realize that Alloy has become a singular expression of one song played through four movements, all of them deeply related and quietly radical, the trio's approaches to improvisation almost, almost, suggesting those early days of Bill Evans with Scott LaFaro and Paul Motian when their collective possibilities appeared endless.

Track Listing: Returns; Movement; Template; A Love Song.

Personnel: Tyshawn Sorey: drums; Cory Smythe: piano; Christopher Tordini: bass.

Title: Alloy | Year Released: 2015 | Record Label: Pi Recordings

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