Sunday, August 21, 2016

CD Review: Tyshawn Sorey - The Inner Spectrum of Variables

Tyshawn Sorey
The Inner Spectrum of Variables

Improvising musicians have been attempting for decades to incorporate styles far removed the standard jazz format of horns and rhythm section/solo-over-changes style. Some most famously did away with chord changes. Third stream attempted to bring a classical sensibility to the music, where more of it was composed. Fusion, at its best (before that was a viable category) combined the visceral quality of rock with the ability to tear up chord changes.  World music tries to bring together musics from other countries. Sometimes these experiments worked, sometimes it watered down the original idea into something that left out the vital parts of the music in question.

In the past couple of years - maybe up to the past four, really - musicians affiliated with jazz have been earning recognition for playing music that would rankle the purists and some of the more adventurous types, due to its use of things like samples, more modern rock aesthetics or an even more avant approach to the avant-garde. What makes recent albums by people like Marcus Strickland and Esperanza Spaulding succeed is the fact that they're not approaching it from a path of either naive experimentation or dilettantism. They're playing from their own experience. And to ask them simply follow the path of John Coltrane or Jaco Pastorius would be as ridiculous as expecting Miles Davis to just play like Cootie Williams. The runaway success of Kamasi Washington last year indicated that people are in the mood for something that draws on different styles with adventure.

Drummer/composer Tyshawn Sorey's work also reveals a mind that has incorporated a wealth of music and uses that experience to come up with works that explode with creativity and adventure. After having established himself as a drummer that can swing in the most remote, unswinging time signatures, he has simultaneously (!) earned a masters in composition from Wesleyan University and is currently working on a Doctorate in Music for Composition from Columbia University. Last year, Wesleyan appointed him to a tenure track position where he replaces retiring professor Anthony Braxton. The seat is a telling one, because it answers the question of who could succeed Braxton, bringing with it all the necessary perspectives on music and its avenues. Sorey is clearly the one for the job.

For clues to the way Sorey can shape the minds of students in a university setting, drop into any section of The Inner Spectrum of Variable, a two-disc, two-hour composition in six movements recorded by a double trio: Sorey's trio with Cory Smythe (piano) and Christopher Tordini (bass) with violinist Chern Hwei Fung, violist Kyle Armbrust and cellist Rubin Kodheli. When some experimental composers utilize a string section, it yields a heavy amount of drones from the low strings and atonal, whining scrapes on the top end. It's an extreme example of melody, but one that doesn't sound fully mature. Not the case here.

The strings on this piece can get harsh at times, but Sorey doesn't let them simply grate on the ears. In fact, one compelling quality of Inner Spectrum is how it keeps reshaping itself, never sticking long enough in one place to burn an idea out. The strings turn contemplative, melancholy and even dance on top of a tense two-fisted piano riff, grounded by the rhythm section. Sorey's previous album Alloy leaned largely on ideas of suspense and the slow evolution of a composition. With this album, he cites the influence of Braxton and improviser/composer Lawrence "Butch" Morris - the latter known for his "conduction" technique that involved both improvisation and conducting. But Harold Budd, Ethiopian jazz, the AACM and Brahms also inspired this writing.

Having said all of that, it would be too laborious to dissect the entire composition. In some ways, my ears are still settling into the music, picking up more nuances with each listen. There are many and they all have a tantalizing quality. Suffice to say that even when a section lasts just a few minutes within the space of a 20- to 30-minute movement, it sounds like a part of a greater whole, not simply a quick sketch that's stitched into a bigger piece. "Reverie," which opens the second disc, begins with an extended solo by the composer on a variety of cymbals and other percussion, create rich sustained drones and acts as something of a pause between movements. Sorey probably could've made a longer piece all by himself, but this reverie also ushers in the strings, making something with more depth.

In the opening paragraph I intentionally avoided using the term "jazz musicians." Sorey can be called a jazz musician of course. He shows up on a remarkable number of modern jazz discs as a sideman. (Talk about living the good life - composing, working at a university, playing with a wealth of great musicians! Lucky so-and-so.) But The Inner Spectrum of Variables isn't really a jazz album. It's a style of music that hasn't received a proper name yet. So don't bother with such things right now. Let students of Sorey's students worry about that in a generation or two. In the meantime, get in on the ground floor.

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