Saturday, October 20, 2018

CD Review -Tyshawn Sorey - Pillars

Tyshawn Sorey
(Firehouse 12)

For someone who is both prolific as a composer and in-demand as a sideman (click here for just a sample of proof) Tyshawn Sorey does not rush anything with his own music. This becomes clear in the opening section of Pillars, a single composition spread over three discs. The work begins with a drum roll that lasts nearly four minutes. The roll has no significant shifts in dynamics. Sorey may be toying with phase shifting a little as he plays it, although that could be my ears listening for variations. It's tempting to say this segment sets the tone for what will come over the three discs, each lasting about 75 minutes on average. But that's an easy cliche and it's not an accurate description either.

Sorey, who plays drums, percussion, trombone and dungchen (a Tibetan long horn) and conducts, is joined by four bassists - Joe Morris, Carl Testa, Mark Helias and Zach Rowden. Testa doubles on electronics. Morris also plays guitar, as does Todd Neufeld. Stephen Haynes (trumpet, flugelhorn, cornet, alto horn and small percussion) and Ben Gerstein (trombone and melodica) complete the octet.

Pillars has a great deal of open space in the music. Things develop slowly, giving it plenty of room to breathe. When Neufeld plays acoustic guitar in Part I, he doesn't attack the strings fast and furiously. He sounds more methodical, like he's thinking deeply about what to play, as he casually vocalizes along with his instrument and Sorey adds some loose commentary from his trap kit. Throughout the entire piece, there are some moments when the volume knob might be cranked to fully grasp the work of the basses, for instance, only to have a brass blast make you jump five feet. A high frequency squeal comes about 50 minutes into Part II, threatening to spoil the whole thing for anyone who can't handle the high pitch. (A similar one comes in Part I, but Testa lowers its range quickly.)

The unsettling moments aren't limited to the shrill pitches either. Part III begins with a repetitive passage, where the basses bow a dissonant tone cluster and an answer comes from a quick guitar plink. This continues for four tense minutes before a trombone enters the fray for a solo that adds some haunting beauty to the scene. On the surface, this section can get under one's skin, but since Sorey takes his time, it encourages close scrutiny to figure out why he did it this way. Only then do you notice how the basses slowly move out of sync with one another, with one beginning to pluck instead of bow. When the trombonist (it could be either Sorey or Gerstein) is left alone, the slow transition makes it feel more dramatic.

It's kind of surprising that Pillars doesn't include any notes from the composer. Neufeld plays both acoustic and electric guitars, so it can hard to distinguish the latter from him or Morris. Same goes for the 'bone players, not to mention the bassists, who are panned across the speakers. Besides, a piece like this with so many sections begs from some guidance.

Sorey has said the work was inspired by Zen meditation, which explains the deliberate movement of the work. Low notes drone slowly, not creating a melody but setting a mood. They might happen in close proximity to three- or four-way bass passages or they might lead to the tolls of gongs and bells, which always sound rich and enthralling in Sorey's work. In other people's sessions, Sorey has made complex time signature swing as hard as an Art Blakey 4/4 groove. Here, he often reduces his trap work to simple pounds and crashes. But that's really all the music needs at that point.

While the subdued movement of the set does evoke the act of meditation, it also recalls work by Roscoe Mitchell (Sorey played on Bells for the South Side) and Bill Dixon. The Part III opening also invites comparisons to Morton Feldman. Ultimately, name dropping all of these composers in one paragraph indicates that Sorey is actually creating a new stream of music which might not have its own category as of yet.

Sorey explains that the flowing quality of Pillars means that shouldn't be considered "goal-oriented music...Actually I see the experience as meditative, akin to how it works with ambient music, so that you're almost 'listening without listening' - a Zen way of experiencing music," he says in the album's press release. In a really surprising turn, Pillars IV, the vinyl counterpart to the three-CD Pillars presents a different version of the piece which surely impacts the way it can come across to listeners. After listening to the discs several times, there is a temptation to find out how it comes across edited down and delivered on vinyl. After all, Sorey has declared, "To me, the recording is the piece."

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