Tyshawn Sorey

Kurt Gottschalk By

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This month at The Stone could be seen as a number of things. It might be a belated and prolonged birthday party for Tyshawn Sorey, who turned 29 in July. Or it could be a send-off for the percussionist/pianist (and erstwhile trombonist), who will be moving to Connecticut to study composition at Wesleyan University. Or it might just be a much-deserved opportunity for a gifted and prolific musical mind.

Sorey took the opportunity to curate the month as a chance to book shows for some of his favorite musicians, both influences of his and people he thinks deserve wider notice. His frequent band mate Jesse Elder will present a four-hand piano piece and the inventive vocalist Fay Victor will appear with Sorey and legendary trombonist Roswell Rudd. Reed player Ned Rothenberg will play in a quartet with Elder and Sorey will play in Ingrid Laubrock's trio, which has a new record coming out on Clean Feed.

But much of what's going on will also be Sorey presenting Sorey, taking for himself some of the opportunities that are increasingly hard to come by in and around New York City.

Sorey came to the attention of most listeners when he joined the trio Fieldwork (with Vijay Iyer and Steve Lehman) in 2005 and then released his debut CD as a leader, That/Not, on Firehouse 12 in 2007. That work, a sprawling two-disc set with an additional 70 minutes of material available for download, earned him considerable praise in the press, but also made for a powerful statement of Sorey as a serious artist. He played drums with his quartet on most of it, piano on two pieces and sat one track out. This was, it seemed, someone concentrating on how to present his work.

It's a challenge faced by many musicians working in improvised settings, to present oneself as both a player and a composer. But according to Sorey, it's a "trap"—one that hits drummers especially hard.

"I'm very displeased with the ways a lot of drummers are treated as composers," he says. "They should have equal opportunities to other composers." He notes Susie Ibarra, Gerald Cleaver and Andrew Cyrille as drummers who have had to struggle to be seen as such.

"Gerry Hemingway for me is really a model to go after of being a drummer and a composer," he adds. "Even Max Roach, as much as he contributed to modern music, I find it somewhat disturbing he's not getting the credit as a composer he deserves.

"What's going to be interesting about the month is that I'm doing this in hopes of eliminating the division between being a drummer and a composer for myself. I hope to combat that at least a little."

Sorey grew up in Newark, schooled on the jazz and classic rock albums around the house and, by high school, was playing around with drumming. It wasn't until a summer program under pianist Michele Rosewoman's tutelage, he says, that he began to think more seriously about music.

"Drumming was more my hobby," he says. "Fortunately I made it into her student ensemble. She has meant so much to me in expanding my vocabulary and learning how to be musical, how to be in the moment at all times."

He credits her with teaching him a subtlety, both in his drumming and his composing.

"My compositions even back then were still really complicated and she helped me to condense them and hear them in a different way."

He continued studying with Rosewoman while attending William Paterson University in New Jersey and seeking out the opportunities that eventually led him to Fieldwork. It's in that collective (and, not incidentally, very intelligent) trio that Sorey was first able to put himself to the fore as a composer, easily fitting in with Iyer and Lehman and creating some remarkably thoughtful and energetic music.

"Simply put, Tyshawn Sorey is the most brilliant composer/percussionist of his generation," Lehman says with no lack of enthusiasm. "Possessing both perfect pitch and a total-recall-like ability to absorb massive amounts of musical information, Tyshawn has defined a state-of-the-art compositional universe. I know of no other young composer so intimately familiar with a manifold of compositional histories that includes the work of Morton Feldman, Elvin Jones, Karlheinz Stockhausen and Anthony Braxton, among many others. And rather than simply reappropriating these musical influences, Tyshawn has continually found ways to assimilate and transform ideas from a broad spectrum of experimental musical idioms, developing his own compositional voice in so doing."

The opportunity to study under Prof. Braxton was, no doubt, a considerable draw in applying to the composition program at Wesleyan, but he is quick to point out (showing the breadth of influence Lehman cited) that Alvin Lucier and Pheeroan akLaff both teach there as well. And, he adds, he is also excited about the expansive library of music from around the world the university houses. He is especially interested in studying Indian and Tibetan music and while his studies of Asian music haven't yet been formal, the music on his new trio CD Koan, he says, is based on the "vibrational aspects" he heard while listening to recordings of the traditional musics.

Koan is being released this month on 482 Music and the trio (with Todd Neufeld and Thomas Morgan) will present the material on Aug. 5th. It's a beautiful, at times delicate, recording and very different from his previous release: no piano or horns and the pieces leave a lot of room for improvisation. It's another bold move, just before he heads north. Sorey insists that he'll still be playing; no doubt the demands of the classroom will keep him busy for the next two years.

"I enjoy being a sideman and I enjoy playing different styles of music. However I feel right now this is a period where I really need to be getting my own music out."

Recommended Listening:

Vijay Iyer, Blood Sutra (Artists House, 2003)

Fieldwork, Door (Pi, 2007)

Tyshawn Sorey, That/Not (Firehouse 12, 2007)

John Escreet, Consequences (Posi-Tone, 2008)

Steve Lehman Octet, Travail, Transformation, and Flow (Pi, 2008)

Tyshawn Sorey, Koan (482 Music, 2009)


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