Even for a musician who thrives on unsettling expectations, Tyshawn Sorey's Mesmerism
(Yeros7 Music, 2022) caught a lot of listeners by surprise. The inimitable drummer's recordings have long occupied that amorphous space between avant-garde jazz and contemporary classical music, and "accessibility" has rarely been the term of choice for his creative output. But utilizing a trio format including pianist Aaron Diehl
and bassist Matt Brewer
, the album offered six remarkable renderings of classic jazz repertoire, including such time-worn standards as "Autumn Leaves" and "Detour Ahead." Not only the material but the personnel choices were striking, as Diehl is perhaps best known for his work with vocalist Cecile McLorin Salvant
, while Brewer has a resume that includes stints with Terence Blanchard
and Jeff "Tain" Watts. Even so, there is no mistaking the idiosyncratic touch Sorey and partners bring to the music, as the gorgeous but frequently abstract treatments are anything but a by-the-book exercise.
As excellent as Mesmerism
is, what might be considered its follow-up, The Off-Off Broadway Guide to Synergism
, is even better. Recorded live at the Jazz Gallery in March 2022, the trio has effectively been expanded to a quartet, which now includes bassist Russell Hall
and alto saxophonist Greg Osby
. With Osby's assertive presence in the mix, there is now a more palpable urgency to the music, and the material feels more anchored in the jazz tradition. That's not to say that it has become any more predictable or routine, howeverin fact, the sheer creativity on display is astonishing, and it amply justifies the generous three-and-a-half-hour runtime of the recording.
With an abundance of standards again on offer, including a scintillating version of Cole Porter
's "Night and Day" to kick off the first set, the album gets its energy from the open-ended sense of play that characterizes each piece. Most of the tracks clock in at over ten minutes, which allows for plenty of arresting pivot points and fascinating digressions. Sorey can swing with the best of drummers, and he gets lots of opportunities to do that here, although his penchant for shifting the pulse and de-centering the rhythmic foundation of each tune are also in evidence. Diehl matches his versatility, with gestures ranging from grandiose to austere; his subtle shadings behind Osby on "Chelsea Bridge" are delicate and ruminative, but his thunderous torrents on the first take of Osby's own "Please Stand By" are rapturous. Hall's rhythmic versatility is itself a marvel, as he is able somehow to keep pace with the fluid peregrinations of the pieces, but his lyrical proclivities are also apparent, as he demonstrates on his nimble accompaniment and unhurried, meditative solo on Andrew Hill
's "Ashes." And last but not least, of course, is Osby, who is in top form throughout. He can extract all the tender emotional content from "It Could Happen to You," but he can just as easily unleash a glorious tumult on Miles Davis
Some of the tracks are repeated between sets, but this hardly diminishes their value; indeed, it provides an opportunity to witness the group's creativity in action. The two versions of Osby's "Please Stand By" are a case in point: whereas the first is fueled by a deep-seated groove under Osby's keening melody, the second has a looser, more propulsive feel, with Sorey's punchy fills leading the way. And "Three Little Words" in the first set is a showcase for Diehl, with his lovely rubato opening that paves the way for a sprawling, twenty-minute exploration, while the second set's version is more compact and tightly-structured, animated by an infectious, swinging tempo.
Listening to these musicians investigate jazz repertory with such imaginative zest is a reminder that the best jazz has always walked the line between reverence and reinvention. Sorey will in all likelihood always prioritize his more esoteric pursuits, but in the meantime, these reminders of his jazz roots are worth savoring.
(Set 1): Night and Day; Please Stand By; Chelsea Bridge; Three Little Words; Mob Job; Ask Me Now; (Set 2): Out of
Nowhere; Ashes; Please Stand By; Three Little Words; Jitterbug Waltz; Mob Job; It Could Happen to You; (Set 3): I
Remember You; We’ll Be Together Again; Contemplation; Out of Nowhere; Solar; Ask Me Now.
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