Tyshawn Sorey: Composite Reality

Daniel Lehner By

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Not only did Cupolo give Sorey his exposure to the drums, he also opened up the young musician to the world of improvised music. "He would be practicing scales and modes and stuff at about 7:00 or so in the morning. One morning I walked in and at that time they really didn't let students into the building before class, but the security guard let me in. He took at liking to me because he saw that I was serious. I asked him what he was doing, these things like diminished scales and modes, and he sat me down for about two class periods where he showed me the Charlie Parker Omnibook, where I first learned "Ornithology," which was the first tune I really learned how to improvise on. That tune is pretty hard as it is and I'm just learning how to improvise really and then he puts this Charlie Parker Omnibook in front of me. He gave me the book to take home and I looked at it a bit. We had this concert and I took one chorus on "Ornithology." Then he kept having me play more and more and when I ran out of ideas, he just went to someone else."

By 1999, Sorey had gained considerable experience learning the ins and outs of jazz drumming, participating in youth jazz programs and studying with figures like Kenny Washington and Billy Hart. He would eventually find himself at William Paterson University, but not immediately: Sorey had missed the initial deadline for the jazz track. He decided to apply the classical track on trombone, which ended up being a short-lived experience. "I was still very serious about the trombone at the time and I was playing a lot of classical rep. I was interested in being a classical trombonist and they let me because I had a lot of stuff together. I didn't want to do percussion because I didn't think that I was very good. So finally one semester passes, and I was already somewhat dissatisfied with the program and the level of seriousness that the students took to the music. Of course, I was 20 years old at the time and I might not have felt that way now.

Steve Coleman Five Elements—The Mancy of Sound"There was an arrangement made that even I was in the classical track and participated in brass ensembles and concert band, I was also allowed to participate in combos. It was arranged that I would be in Richard DeRosa 's combo. That was sort of my way of practicing because I was in ensembles with great players and I was inspired by all of these great drummers around me like Eric McClendon, Mark Guiliana and Jonathan Blake. I wanted to swing and know the drums as well as I knew the trombone." Sorey eventually got into the jazz program, though in retrospect, it came as something as a surprise to him, given his opinion of himself as a drummer. "I thought that I sucked. I didn't really have any dynamics, had no real touch, didn't really have a great control or nuance and my Latin was just non-existent."

Sorey's early drum and percussion mentors at William Paterson were diverse in both their stature as musicians and their effect on the young drummer. Among those he encountered were jazz drummers like John Riley, Bill Goodwin and Kevin Norton, who all managed to impress different aspects of drumming and musicianship. "[Riley] impressed that you don't always just listen to jazz drumming and even though I was listening to other types of music, at the time I only wanted to be the workinest jazz drummer I could be and only play in that style. What he told me was that I need to check out African music and Indian music and other stuff like that. After every lesson, he would give me recommendations and then I would come back to the next lesson with questions and they would go over the scheduled hour with the talking that we did. I don't think he really talked to other drummers as much as he did with me. He recommended me the Royal Hartigan book of African rhythms and also recommended books on Hindustani and Carnatic music as well. "

With Goodwin, he initially clashed with the LA drummer. Sorey had reached a point wherein he was involved with more "free" playing and wasn't particularly interested in traditional drum pedagogy. What could have been an awkward experience, however, managed to be a worthwhile mentorship on extra-musical properties. "I just walked into a lesson saying I didn't want to talk about drums or time or trading fours at all; I just wanted to talk about life. That became our study period ever since. He gave me a copy of Effortless Mastery, the Kenny Werner book, which was leading toward a way of making music that I felt like I was doing but actually needed to work on more. We would just have lunch together and just talk about how to appreciate each moment, even if it's a bad one, because there's always something to learn."

Sorey also gained much of his influence in the compositional world at William Paterson, some of which came from the classical faculty like Jeffery Kresky and Elliot Carter scholar John Link, but also from drummer/vibraphonist/composer Kevin Norton. "When I was starting to write in the language that I was hearing as opposed to writing over 'traditional' harmonies and 32-bar form, [Norton] told me, 'Well that's fine and all, but you really have to know every part like the back of your hand, to the point where if a musician questions a part and questions your musical judgment, you have to be able to explain it in an effective way,' which was very good for me."

Sorey's post-graduate career was filled with noteworthy engagements as a drummer, ranging from Dave Douglas's NOMAD ensemble to Vijay Iyer. Sorey continued to flesh out the concept of the Oblique songbook with early inceptions of the group. Some of the current standing members, like saxophonist Loren Stillman, had been there from the beginning, but both members and the sound/textural concepts of the group have changed since the first outing.

"I didn't really think about creating a body of this music until I started playing it regularly in about 2005 at Zebulon [in Brooklyn]," says Sorey. "I had done it as a senior recital at WPUNJ in 2004, which went okay. Loren Stillman he was on that recital and has been playing that music ever since, but as far as the other guys, I needed to find some people who were able to deal with this material in the same way that I was dealing with it. It's very difficult to play as far as keeping your place, because the parts are weaving in and out of each other."

Tyshawn Sorey—KoanThe quintet was initially rounded out with pianist Carl Maguire and bassist Carlo Derosa. Sorey and company began finding themselves in a scenario wherein initial mistakes were not thought of as errors, but as new structural material. Ryan Clackner joined the group on guitar, which eventually solidified the alto/guitar sound concept seen in the group today. The group would move in and out of different numerical arrangements (sometimes up to eight musicians at a time), slowly developing the nuances of the tricky songbook.

However, something significant happened in Sorey's composition approach once he visited Japan in 2006. "I went to Japan that same year and visited a monastery when I had a day off. When I returned, my interest in Zen Buddhism began, not just in terms of my own well being but also musically. I felt that the music that I was doing was good music but there was something that didn't really resonate with me correctly. At that point, I felt like it was difficult music for difficulty's sake."

Zen and concepts of meditation (gleaned from authors like Alan Watts) began to seriously influence Sorey at this point. It led him to write a long and controversial piece that seriously departed from his quintet oeuvre—"Permutations for Solo Piano." The work, which clocks in at 45 minutes in length, explored the concepts of manipulating small pieces of sound information by repeating a single chord with various uses of silence, registral shifts and pitch attack/decay. "I thought that it would never get performed, but at least I'd have it as a signifier for where things would go after that," he explained. "So I wrote that and a few other pieces for the That/Not CD. Already you can tell that the music breathed a lot more. It's still quite difficult to play. There is an element that the music is breathing and really speaking to you. It was more melodic than some of the stuff I wrote for Oblique, though that's melodic in a sense also."

That/Not (Firehouse 12, 2007) acted as a compendium of works reflecting Sorey's newer compositional approaches. Pieces like "Template" rearranged, manipulated and juxtaposed a small number of musical events, and "Sacred and Profane" used two key centers (A minor and Bb minor) to create different progressions. "There's a lot of chromaticism and voice-leading but also more common things like minor triads. I like ['Sacred and Profane'] a lot. It's actually singable, to an extent, whereas you can't really do that with the Oblique stuff; you'd have to listen repeatedly for that."

Sorey's next release, Koan (482 Music, 2009), was actually a continuation of his experiences in Japan, more so than a sequel to That/Not. More so than anything else, Koan explored a multitude of different languages of composition. "It really tested my whole idea of my relation to sound and time and these kinds of things. There's no system in place, really, for that music; it's sort of conceived in the moment where I would hear something and just write it. We're not just dealing in musical terms either; we're dealing in existential terms, thinking about how you experience listening."

Koan exhibited an incredible spectrum of musical ideas and tempers. Pieces like "Nocturnal" again exhibited the concept of saying a musical phrase many different ways and "Two Guitars" uses limited pitch material, but works like "Correct Truth" explored not only 12-tone writing but also more abstract concepts like audibility, and "Awakening" dealt with different strata of time. Sorey found that the breadth of compositional mechanisms may have alienated some.

"It's amazing how much press the first and last records got whereas Koan hasn't gotten nearly as much. I think people didn't really get that record. We were exploring all these different devices on one CD. It's really hard to suss out what the band's character was. Those who did listen to it are really attentive to it. It's either you hate it or love. With That/Not or Oblique, you could take some different things out of it."


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