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A look inside The Jazz Gallery

Clockwise from top left: Tyshawn Sorey, Sasha Berliner, Morgan Guerin, Nathan Reising, Lex Korten, and Nick Dunston, Photos courtesy of the artists.

This Saturday, The Jazz Gallery is pleased to welcome drummer & composer Tyshawn Sorey back to our stage. Fresh off an acclaimed Composer Portraits series concert at the Miller Theatre, Sorey will convene his new sextet project at the Gallery. Featuring saxophonists Nathan Reising and Morgan Guerin, vibraphonist Sasha Berliner, pianist Lex Korten, and bassist Nick Dunston, the group made their debut this past fall at The Kitchen, and this will be their second performance.

We caught up with Tyshawn by phone to talk about the group’s inception and the new musical avenues they explore in Sorey’s compositions.

The Jazz Gallery: How was the band formed?

Tyshawn Sorey: We met at the Banff International Workshop in Jazz and Creative Music in August 2018. We had rehearsed for two weeks leading up to a concert that we gave at the workshop premiering the pieces. Nick Dunston was not there for that—we had another bass player who was playing with us, and we also had a vocalist and no vibes. The group became what it is now when we performed at the Kitchen this past October as part of my three-night residency there. We performed, and on that second night we basically rehearsed for about five or six hours, and we then took a break and then we played the show. And that’s how that went!

TJG: What is the music that you’ll be performing at this show?

TS: We’ll be performing seven or eight compositions. We will be doing that as one very long show. We don’t do set breaks, so we’ll do one long show from 7:30 until about 9:30 or 10 o’clock, or maybe 10:30 even, depending on how we get through the material. We’ll be doing some very intense rehearsing and then we’ll arrive at the concert. We’ll just perform the music at the Gallery. It’s seven pieces that I created during my residency in Captiva, Florida as part of their Robert Rauschenberg artist residency, and I was one of the fellows. It was a six week program in Captiva, where I spent a great amount of time in Rauschenberg’s main studio as well as hanging around a lot of different visual artists and people like that. I was the only musician/composer who was there, at the part of that residency. I wanted to develop a set of pieces that show a side of me that not a lot of people are very familiar with, I wanted to explore another side of my work. And so all these compositions are meant to represent a side of me, in terms of my own compositional creative output, that maybe people are less familiar with.

TJG: How would you describe that side of you? What is unfamiliar about it to people?

TS: I think people know my work as mostly being very quiet and slowly unfolding and with a great deal of compositional material that people are reading and stuff like that. There is a lot of is always a lot of detail in what we do as a sextet, in terms of how we go about navigating through the material. No two performances of the music is ever the same. However, the music sort of—I guess there’s less, I don’t want to say less rigor because there’s a lot of rigor in everything that I do, but—I don’t really know how to describe it other than—the music well, you will definitely hear a lot more drumming coming from me, and you’ll also hear a lot more opportunities for creative interplay and that sort of thing so. Not that that doesn’t exist in any of my other music but it’s more about how we function as a unit together, and how we best navigate through material. As I said before, no two performances of the music is ever the same, even though people have charts in front of them. Just like in my trio, we determine certain forms ahead of time, and if train wrecks happen we find other ways of navigating through the music that work in real time. That’s generally how the group functions. I don’t like to give too much away in terms of what people should expect to hear in a given performance of what we’re doing, because I’d rather they come here and get surprised by what we’re playing. Hopefully they will take a little bit of something else about my work with them, that maybe they didn’t otherwise realize.

TGJ: I just kind of had a moment like that, just because you were saying you’re going to be doing a lot of drumming and that’s unusual, and kind of the first time I saw you play (this was with your trio) was the way that you kind of controlled volume as an element of timbre and there was this moment of things being very loud and then hitting a threshold of louder and then doing it like three more times, and that was really fundamental to your performance that night. It’s funny to think that you might categorize that as something that’s unfamiliar. 

TS: The intensity is much of what is present in my work, even at times I’m not playing the instrument, there’s a certain intensity that is there. And so, I can tell you that the music that people will be hearing on the 27th will be very, very intense much of the time. The physicality of live performance is one of the things that I’m after. And performing with this sextet, how the music is affected by playing for a very long period of time. I think that that sort of avenue gets overlooked a bit sometimes, how people’s energy transforms the music over a long period of time. That’s why my sets tend to be very long. It’s because that’s part of my relationship to the work that I’m doing in terms of exploring that physical and mental space, in live performance, that you don’t necessarily get when you play for 40 to 45 minutes. This requires a different kind of presence when you’re on the bandstand with people.

When you’re performing with colleagues, and then when you’re performing a lot of this densely packed music with a lot of information in it, sometimes it’s almost overload. I get curious what that overload means to people, and what it means for musicians—you know, you’re two hours into a set and and you still have a ton of music to go through [laughter], how does that affect how one improvises or how one chooses to go about making divisions in the music—

and are they still even present in the music even after that amount of time has passed? The physicality of live performance is something that has been attributed to my drumming and in my compositional work, so even when one is playing very few notes, and also when one is playing lots of notes, so that same thing is just one of the attributes given to music I present, so that’s what you’ll get with the sextet as well.

TJG: How do you go about composing for improvisers versus composing for people who are primarily not improvisers?

TS: I don’t really think in those terms. The process is the same, in terms of how I decide to compose music. I compose with a great deal of rigor, and I also think a lot about where I want the music to go. And sometimes it can go a lot of places and sometimes it can go nowhere. Or sometimes it can kind of just stay in one particular zone for a long time and go to another zone for a long time, and, you know, that sort of thing. So there’s a lot of different places, and there’s a lot of ways in which the music can be explored. What I do look for whenever I am writing music, if it’s it for improvisers or if it’s for interpreters, is imagination. In my writing, I’m always writing with a great deal of imagination—at least to me, you know what I think of as imagination, which might not be the same as what somebody else might think of—what that is.

But I, for myself, whenever I write music for improvisers or for interpreters, I want people to make the music theirs, as though they wrote it. I’m not interested in necessarily having a “correct interpretation” of my music, where everything is absolutely pitch perfect and correct with no personality in it. You know, to me that means the music was played incorrectly. If there was no personality there in the music. So the process is the same, in terms of what I would like to achieve in writing a piece of music. That all the performance’s performers, whoever is performing it, integrates as much of their personality into it as possible, so that the music can have more of a lived-in sort of quality that’s there

TJG: Do you go in thinking about pieces you’re composing in as in different registers or for different audiences—based on if it’s going to kind of lead in a direction that suggests new music versus jazz versus another form for output?

TS: Again, I don’t think in this dichotomy, whether or not this is for a new music audience or a jazz audience or something like that, because once I know the venue in which I am performing the music, the audience is already sort of taken care of—by knowing that I’m going to be performing this music at The Jazz Gallery, I already know who to expect to see over there. I already know the kind of audiences I would expect to find there as far as the performance. So I’m not necessarily thinking, you know, well is there’s going to be a new music audience or is this going to be a jazz audience and what are they going to expect. What they expect doesn’t really matter to me. I think what’s more important to me is that the intention of everything that I’m doing comes out, hopefully in a positive way, if not—the music can affect people in many different ways. No matter what it is I’m writing and no matter who the intended audience is.

Whenever I write a piece of music for any kind of audience, I just try to write the best piece that I can, and do everything that I can with the composition that I’m creating at the time. Hopefully those who are listening will like it, and those that don’t like it, there’s millions of other things they could be listening to, that they could enjoy at their leisure. So I don’t really concern myself much with this idea of which audience am I writing for, whether it’s a new music base or classical base, because like I said, the venue already determines that and so I just try to… It doesn’t necessarily mean that I pander to any particular audience, like I’m not interested in pandering to a particular audience, but I think more or less making sure that my intention is clear. Every time I’m on the bandstand, or not, or anytime my music is being performed for people, hopefully my intentions and what I am trying to express gets heard in the best possible way, that’s all I can hope for.

TJG: I was thinking about time and duration—in the way that comes up in a lot of your music, it does become this very slow work of embodying time. This physical space it where gets kind of stretched out and time becomes something that’s lived in. I was thinking about questions of genre, because I don’t think of you as a particularly genre-bound composer at all, but it does seem like a kind of occupation of different worlds that people at the Jazz Gallery might expect a “set” in a way that people at the Kitchen wouldn’t.

TS: I see. Yeah, I completely agree. To speak further to this point, for me, it’s like I try to look for things that you know that are “not there.” Sometimes I tend to go against the obvious, whether it’s through my writing or for my performance practice. I try to go work with what’s most natural for me, and what’s most natural for me is to do either the opposite of what the norm is, or do something that I think would challenge me and the music and also potentially challenge my listeners, which… listeners in this day and age, they definitely need to be challenged in a lot of ways, and time is one of those ways in which this challenge needs to be exercised through. Because it’s natural for me to do that, and I think the exploration of time on that level is something that I don’t think it’s something that’s really fully realized, so I think that there needs to be a bit more of that, a bit more challenging the way that people listen to music and how people experience their way of listening, and what their relationship to listening is.

What does it mean to be a listener? These are things that I attempt to question even in my own listening practice. I think that that’s important to me, it might not be important to other listeners and other people in the audience, but I also have to do what I think resonates with me on the highest possible level that I can. Through the exploration of time, and challenging audiences through that, that’s just one element of how I hope my music is working. There are other ways too that you could challenge these listeners’ expectations, and hearing and everything. Normally when I talk about my concerts, I only tell listeners “don’t expect anything.” You know just come here and listen (laughs). Because if you come here expecting something, then your way of listening is going to be completely out of touch with what’s going on in the moment. So for me to tell the listener what they’re going to experience or what they’re going to hear in the music or what to expect, I don’t like playing into that, because all it does is alter the experience before it actually happens, and so that’s not really what my music aims for no matter what style it is.

TJG: What have you been listening to lately?

TS: I haven’t really had much time to listen, because I’m in between writing compositions, doing a lot of academic work, but the minute I do listen I always try to listen to new things—there’s just never a better time to learn that now. I’m the kind of person who doesn’t necessarily only listen to the music that I play, that’s not really what I do so much of, but I’m always interested in listening to other things I may not be as familiar with.

One thing I’ve been listening to a lot lately of is Monk Hughes and the Outer Realm, which is a collaboration with Madlib, the name of the album is A Tribute to Brother Weldon. This is an older recording, but it’s been really fascinating to me to listen to this record, and how it’s produced and all of what goes on in that music, which is completely a genre-free approach of dealing with black music. It’s an incredible work, and the production on it is really amazing. That’s been on heavy rotation for a while. Another composer whose work has been in heavy rotation is Olly Wilson. He’s another notable composer who has always been very important for me. Also the work of Talib Rasul Hakim, another great black composer who actually was Joe Chambers’ older brother —he’s another incredible composer whose music I’ve been checking out lately. A lot of stuff by Madlib. I’ve also picked up the most recent Autechre recording, NTS sessions, which is another fantastic record. Harriet Tubman’s recent release has also been incredibly influential to the work that I’m doing now. So you know there’s a lot of different things but right now if I could name five things at the top of my list that would be it.

TJG: Do you have any upcoming projects that you’re excited about?

TS: There’s no project that I’m doing that I’m not excited about! It’s a good time to live, and it’s a great time be doing the amount of writing and the amount of work on my own music that I’ve been doing and everything which has been really really cool for me! So I do look forward to my upcoming commissions and performances and everything, particularly with the McGill/McHale trio, an incredible trio, a commission that I have from 92Y that I’m looking forward to premiering around late December. There’s also a commission with Alarm Will Sound that’s going to be happening that I’m really excited about, more of a collaborative kind of thing. Also concertos with Jennifer Koh, the great violinist, with the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra and with Seth Parker Woods with the Seattle Symphony orchestra. These are “concertos” but they’re not really much for concertos, [laughter] but that’s a subject for another time.

I’m also excited about other collaborations that could be coming down the pipe, one for Rothko Chapel, also I’m doing a duo recording with Marilyn Crispell I think will be out by the end of this year, which I’m super looking forward to. And also I’m documenting my more electric kind of project with Graham Hayes, Brandon Ross High Priest, and people like that, I’m also excited about documenting that sometime in the future. So there’s a lot of ideas, but the time to get these done is of the essence right now, because there’s so many other things I really want to do, and other things that I am looking forward to exploring.

But yeah! It’s going to be a very fruitful period for me, so couldn’t be more excited to be working on my music, and be able to do performances and stuff like that here and there. I’m looking forward to the time that I’m going to be spending at the Banff center as part of the Ensemble Evolution program and as part of the international workshop for Jazz and Creative Music which I also codirect with Vijay Iyer so I’m very excited about that. So there’s a lot to be excited about! I’m definitely looking forward to it all, and looking forward to doing more listening and doing more homework, so to speak. So it’s a great time.

Hope people will enjoy the music, hope to see you there!

The Tyshawn Sorey Sextet plays The Jazz Gallery on Saturday, April 27, 2019. The group features Mr. Sorey on drums & compositions, Nathan Reising on alto saxophone, Morgan Guerin on tenor saxophone, Sasha Berliner on vibes, Lex Korten on piano, and Nick Dustin on bass. One long set at 7:30 P.M. $30 general admission ($15 for members), $40 reserved cabaret seating ($25 for members). Purchase tickets here.