Composer and drummer Tyshawn Sorey has emerged as a major statesman on the scene. The New Yorker has called him “an extraordinary talent who can see across the entire musical landscape,” and the New York Times, raising the stakes, has described him as “an artist who is at the nexus of the music industry’s artistic and social concerns.” The Rail’s music editor, George Grella, has written of how Sorey’s compositions from a recent recording are “driven from deep, internal imperatives, the music taking shape out of personal exploration and discovery, rather than as a response to existing structures, forms, and even styles.”
Although those internal imperatives are paramount (calling to mind Milan Kundera’s observations on Beethoven’s existential call and response: “Muss est sein? Es muss sein! / Must it be? It must be!”) much of the critical outpouring over Sorey does focus on his status as a post-genre artist. He regularly composes long-form works informed equally by the contemporary classical and free jazz traditions, but filtered through his unique sensibility. His collaborators from the world of improvised music include such premier players as Vijay Iyer, Kris Davis, and Roscoe Mitchell, and he seems always to be pushing outward, working at the limits of compositional structure.
Yet his new recording, Mesmerism (Yeros7 Music), takes still a different turn. Working with perfectly attuned partners, pianist Aaron Diehl and bassist Matt Brewer, Sorey interprets six songs that fall broadly under the banner of jazz standards, from the often-recorded ballad “Autumn Leaves” to Duke Ellington’s barrelhouse “REM Blues.” Working with more conventional forms could be considered its own kind of swerve, but Sorey views it an act of fidelity, an effort “to document the unwavering love and appreciation I have for these songs in the most honest, earnest way I can.” However, as someone who is often hitting back at some people’s notions of what he ought to be composing, he takes the occasion to note, “After being typecast as being a so-called ‘avant-gardist’ for nearly two decades, I decided that it was finally time for me to make this recording date happen myself with musicians I deeply respect and admire.”
It’s not just expectations of him, but the whole category of standards that Sorey turns back for further review. There was a time when any decent musician was expected to know certain songs (“run down ‘Joy Spring’”) as a basis for improvising. These tunes provided a common language for the musicians playing them. But embedded in them were questions about what constituted this canon: what standard and whose? With a democratic but often openly commercial bent, the jazz world began to take on newer pop songs, from Stevie Wonder to Radiohead, as standards, with mixed degrees of success. Rather than go that route, Sorey revisits older songs that truly warrant further inquiry, and that push the limits of what make a standard a standard bearer.
Sorey has expressed his admiration for the Bill Evans Trio, and some of that group’s rigorous interplay—anchored by a strong sense of each player’s individual arc—informs this trio’s approach. An Evans composition, “Detour Ahead,” is given a fascinating extended workout, with Sorey noting that the arrangement “constantly ‘detours’ from the original key that we’ve established by harmonically modulating to other keys of the song within its entire structure.” Horace Silver’s “Enchantment” conveys some of the mesmerizing qualities suggested by the album’s title, with crystalline articulation meeting roiling drive. Sorey also reaches out to include two composers (Muhal Richard Abrams and Paul Motian) not routinely thought of as standards writers, beautifully represented here by “Two Over One” and “From Time to Time” respectively. Sorey wants the canon to grow by including these, and they more than hold their own in this context.
To make this recording, Sorey assembled this trio for their first time playing together, and only rehearsed with them for a few hours. (Kind of Blue is always held up as the nonpareil of this approach to recording.) It’s fascinating to listen to these players listen to each other, digging into and responding to each other’s approaches. The resulting record of this interaction is a fresh, spare take on these old and new standards. The trio gives a welcome sense of breath and space to the compositions, while also asserting their voices clearly. Both Diehl and Brewer play with such contained assurance, very much like Sorey, that the interpretations feel lived in, ready.
This month, Sorey will bring a major new work to the Park Avenue Armory. Monochromatic Light (Afterlife) was written as a commission of the Armory, as well as DaCamera and the Rothko Chapel in Houston. The production will be directed by Peter Sellars, with visual art by Julie Mehretu and choreography by Reggie (Regg Roc) Gray; how their sharply distinctive contributions will shape the presentation is a very intriguing prospect. The piece is an homage to the composer Morton Feldman, who created a revered score to honor the original opening of the Rothko Chapel fifty years ago. Feldman had a major impact on Sorey (“Feldman’s work made me want to be myself and to pursue beauty in a similar way,” he has said), and his music bears strong traces of it in its highly adventurous, sensitive, astringent romanticism. Both men have spoken of feeling like misfits, but the seriousness of their quests almost demands it.
Feldman may be the key reference point for Sorey, but the affinity with Rothko is also clear. In an interview about the commission, Sorey reflects on his time spent in the Rothko Chapel, feeling a profound connection between what he experienced there and his own work:
Being in the space, you do notice that the color of these paintings changes with the light from the skylight. It’s a beautiful thing to see this change happening very slowly over a long period of time. That’s very much what my music is about. It’s about a situation where everything changes and nothing changes all at once. I want the listener to come away with a different experience of what time means.
Every musician wants the listener to get in time with them, to enter the space of their playing, but Sorey takes the broadest possible approach to that desire, creating a vastly expanded and transformed space for the listener to inhabit.
Grand ambition, unconstrained—this is a quality Sorey and Rothko share. Also, a bristling against definitions that would limit their scope. Rejecting the critical tendency to view his work purely in formal terms, Rothko once commented, “I’m not an abstractionist. I’m not interested in the relationship of color or form or anything else. I’m interested only in expressing basic human emotions: tragedy, ecstasy, doom, and so on.” Finally, there is a core of quietude in both artists’ work, a stillness at the center, no matter how epic or tumultuous it may be. It is almost as if that stillness precedes and envelops their work, something like the quality sketched in this passage from Frank O’Hara: “My quietness has a man in it, he is transparent / and he carries me quietly, like a gondola, through the streets. / He has several likenesses, like stars and years, like numerals.”