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Tyshawn Sorey: Verisimilitude

Troy Dostert By

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Given Tyshawn Sorey's propensity for shattering the boundaries between jazz, free improvisation and classical music, it's noteworthy that he decided to stick with just his regular trio for his latest release, Verisimilitude. His previous record, last year's Inner Spectrum of Variables (Pi), drew heavily from the streams of classical and new music, with the additional presence of a string trio essential in giving that music a chamber-like feel, albeit with a good deal of open- ended improvisational space and even an occasional groove. Despite the pared-down personnel of Verisimilitude, however, this album represents an even greater leap away from the constraints of idiom and tradition that had already become rather tenuous on Inner Spectrum. This is a more abstract, more imposing release, even harder to categorize. And for Sorey, a percussionist whose whole career has involved upending expectations of what a "jazz drummer" can or should do—and, by extension, how a "piano trio" can or should sound—that is truly saying something.

With titles like "Cascade in Slow Motion," "Obsidian" and "Algid November," it's clear that Sorey is hinting at natural, elemental forces in these compositions, with an impression of unyielding immensity even in those stretches of the music where openness and space reside. Aside from the relatively brief "Cascade," the pieces are sprawling and expansive: the longest, "Obsidian" and "Algid November," clock in at over 18 minutes and 30 minutes, respectively, and they unfold gradually, through gestures both minute and grandiose. As Sorey has frequently sought to blur the lines between the composed and improvised sections of his pieces, it's very difficult to locate those demarcations here. When the musicians perform these pieces live, they will sometimes play them backwards (!), or in modified form based on spontaneous instructions from Sorey—so in the end, it's an open question as to how much of the music was played as found on the page and how much was shaped in the moment.

Pianist Cory Smythe and bassist Chris Tordini, core components of Sorey's working trio since 2014's Alloy (Pi), are integral to the project. Smythe, a veteran of new music collectives like the International Contemporary Ensemble and a participant in recent improvisational outings with folks like Ingrid Laubrock, Peter Evans and Nate Wooley, brings a ruminative quality to tracks like "Cascade" and "Flowers for Prashant," where repeated piano figures and a classically-inflected style predominate. But he also generates immense power through bass-register rumblings and tectonic chordal blasts on "Obsidian," and his range of approaches on "Algid November," from subtle minimalist expressions to bold exclamations, are essential to the ebb and flow of the piece. Smythe also uses electronics, and even occasional toy piano, to terrific effect on "Algid November" and "Obsidian," enhancing the tracks' unsettling qualities and creating jarring juxtapositions. Tordini, who has appeared recently on Matt Mitchell's Vista Accumulation (Pi, 2015) and Theo Bleckmann's Elegy (ECM, 2017), possesses a similar versatility, as he often utilizes a massive arco bass sound in addition to his more conventional bass technique; the way his sweeping arco parts bookend Smythe's piano meditation on "Flowers" is a case in point, as are his titanic surges on "Obsidian."

As for Sorey, his role here is that of an equal contributor and a dynamic, expressive musical partner—not a timekeeper or rhythmic anchor. Even on a track like "Cascade," where the trio comes closest to jazz territory via a gentle strolling tempo and an implied sense of swing, Sorey's drums are really just a part of the conversation rather than a generator of fixed pulse or steady parameters to bind the music. And on the more abstract pieces, Sorey is often a muted presence, working as a colorist through a variety of percussion instruments or periodic interjections on toms or cymbals. But even so, his contributions are always effective and potent, perfectly appropriate in sustaining the feel of this mysterious, enigmatic music. He magnifies the brooding intensity of "Obsidian" with formidable, roiling crescendos, and his bursts of aggression on "Algid November" are gripping; but his impeccable restraint on the spare, haunting "Contemplating Tranquility" is just as powerful.

Notwithstanding the music's somber austerity, there are moments of surprising warmth as well. The minor-key coldness of "Cascade" gives way at the end to a gorgeous major-key resolution; and the recurring lyrical piano figure that shines through "Algid November" lightens the dark mood of the piece ever so slightly. But let's not mince words: this is challenging, even daunting music, and it's certainly not for casual listening. For those willing to commit themselves to it, however, the complexity and brilliance of Sorey's vision offers ample rewards, ones that repay multiple encounters.

Track Listing: Cascade in Slow Motion; Flowers for Prashant; Obsidian; Algid November; Contemplating Tranquility.

Personnel: Tyshawn Sorey: drums, percussions; Cory Smythe: piano, toy piano, electronics; Chris Tordini: bass.

Title: Verisimilitude | Year Released: 2017 | Record Label: Pi Recordings

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