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Tyshawn Sorey: Composite Reality

Daniel Lehner By

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Sorey's prolific understanding of compositional devices and the amalgam of influences that have crafted his composerly presence has shown through in both performing contexts with groups like Fieldwork and Paradoxical Frog and within the spectrum of concert music like Roulette and the International Contemporary Ensemble. Sorey has, to date, composed 160 works and is now private instructor of composition and improvisation at the New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music. However, Sorey's other most accomplished skill, perhaps the one that has gained him the most notoriety within the jazz and improvised music world, has also been something of a detriment to work as a composer. The idea of drummer-as-composer is neither paradoxical nor is it particularly new, but Sorey still finds it to be a false conundrum that continues to permeate itself.



"The whole thing with being pigeonholed as a drummer, right away I'm not supposed to be a composer. I'm not supposed to know about music theory. We hear the classic 'three musicians and a drummer' joke. I think it's not cool at all but fortunately there are a growing number of drummers who are composers, especially in New York who have produced very good work over the last ten years or so. I still feel that the 'drummer as composer' has never really had any respect, whether or not it's so-called jazz or not, that's not even important. What he or she will write is frowned upon."

Sorey does not feel that this has just affected him, either; he points to several other drummer friends and colleagues with the same issue. "You still don't hear about somebody like Gerald Cleaver, who has a breadth of compositions in his own name, playing his own music in Europe or New York the same way people he plays with are known for. The same thing goes for somebody like Kendrick Scott, who you don't about playing his own compositions except in New York. Same thing goes for me. I was asking a friend of mine 'How did we go from playing Zebulon twice a month to twice a year?' I understand what is happening on practical level, with the closing of venues, but it limits the overall output as to what people get to hear. Even Paul Motian was a great composer and now only since he passed away do we get to hear about his compositional work. While I might not have the resources to do something like this now, I think the [Dave Douglas's] Festival of New Trumpet Music is an excellent model to follow, because they've been going on now for at least 10 years and there needs to be a similar things for drummers and percussionists. There needs to be something that puts the drummer as composer on the map, because there's too much of it to not have it be represented correctly."

It only speaks to Sorey's depth as a musical figure that his career as a drummer could stand formidably without the presence of his compositional work. He has worked in diverse musical languages with luminaries like Muhal Richard Abrams, Steve Coleman, Dave Douglas, Tim Berne and countless others. Sorey's drumming has come to encompass hundreds of musical assets, paying vital attention to qualities like space, texture, polyrhythmic complexity and sound organization. Interestingly enough, Sorey's first musical endeavors were not the drums alone. Very much like his current standing in the musical world, Sorey's formative years had him soaking up assorted musical idioms.

Paradoxical FrogSorey recalls some of his earliest musical influences by way of television. "When I was a kid, it was watching music videos. We don't think of music videos the same way we do now as we did in the '80s. I mean before MTV, when it was actually video footage of bands performing. My dad and I would sit down and watch those. I would gravitate towards the music and also the drummers a lot of the time. I also watched the piano players and even the horn sections sometimes. I started getting into watching reruns of things like The Ed Sullivan Show and Flip Wilson, where you'd see actual bands performing and there was all kinds of music: jazz, rock, R&B, pop, etc. This all led to me getting interested in music through the church, messing around on their piano and picking up the church songs by ear. I also had a little keyboard at home and I would play those songs the exact same way. At that time, it was mostly by ear. I was also beating around on a lot of pots and pans, too."

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