Thursday, August 31, 2017

CD Review: Tyshawn Sorey - Verisimilitude

Tyshawn Sorey
(Pi Recordings)

It's only been a year and a few weeks since I reviewed The Inner Spectrum of Variables, Tyshawn Sorey's two-disc suite of music for piano trio with string trio. During 2016, he also premiered a composed work titled "Josephine Baker: A Portrait" at the Ojai Music Festival, which made the New York Times' Best Classical Music of the Year list after it was performed at Lincoln Center. His trio debuted at the Village Vanguard (which now seems to be synonymous with greater acceptance for adventurous musicians like Sorey and Mary Halvorson, who also performed there in recent months), and played the Newport Jazz Festival. This year also saw a return to Ojai, reception of his Doctorate of Musical Arts and the beginning of his Assistant Professorship at Wesleyan University.

Of the five pieces on Versimilitude, two were commissioned for last year's Newport Festival. But the way the music flows from track to track - moving at a languid pace, rising and falling, staying in one place at length - it comes across like one larger, captivating work. The pauses between tracks don't last long, but all the open space amidst the compositions makes any more breaks unnecessary.

"Cascade in Slow Motion" lives up to its name, with pianist Cory Smythe playing simple eighth-note figures (rhythmically similar to Monk's "Misterioso") over Christopher Tordini's bass lines. "Flowers for Prashant," dedicated to filmmaker Prashant Bhargava, plants itself on rolling piano chords which Smythe embellishes with single-note additions in the right hand. Beautiful in its execution (Smythe's technique adds to the dynamics) it makes a rich melody out of simple figure, packing all the emotion of the subject matter into it.

"Obsidian," the other Newport commission along with "Cascade," also begins with spare, loopy electronics, not fully catching fire until well past the halfway mark of its 18 minutes. Sorey switches from woodblocks to trap kit, with Tordini rumbling below him, and they start to build, while Smythe hammers away at a low, thunderous chord beneath them. The rise in volume doesn't last, but this doesn't imply an anti-climax. Suspense has been created, and the trio has you hanging on every note and gesture, wondering what were those eerie closing sounds (bowed drum heads?).

Think about it too long and it's easy to miss the fact that "Algid November" has begun with spare piano chords. This might be a remote comparison, but early moments during the 30-minute track recalls the explorations that pianist Lowell Davidson recorded for ESP-Disk' with Gary Peacock and Milford Graves in 1965. It also got me thinking of Thelonious Himself, the solo session where Monk struck chords in a haunting, halting manner, as if he was unsure of them. Most of the focus remains on Smythe, who sounds like he utilizes electronics again, as notes cut off unexpectedly, like an edit has been made. He eventually begins repeating a note in the upper register, while unleashing chords and fragments with his other hand. This brings the trio to a boil until Sorey brings things down with an extended toll on the gong. And that's only two-thirds of the way into the piece.

While those four tracks could have satiated the intriguing listener, Sorey has another quarter-hour piece with "Contemplating Tranquility," which flows right out of "Algid November" with more gong rolls. It's safe to say that nothing like these last two pieces has ever been heard at the Village Vanguard, where he debuted them.

Who knows where Sorey will turn up next (he's appeared on albums by Roscoe Mitchell and Vijay Iyer recently too). But all that is secondary right now. Verisimilitude requires - actually it demands - multiple explorations. And it should be done from various angles and systems. When I listened in the car, I noticed Smythe's toy piano parts. Listening as I write this, Tordini's contributions stand out in greater relief. Short of giving play-by-play descriptions of everything, there's little more than can be said right now. And I don't want to spoil anything more than I already have.

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