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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.

For Jazz Gallery fans, Tyshawn Sorey requires no introduction, and any description of his music or style invariably leaves out something vital. Simply put, as a multi-instrumentalist and composer, Sorey moves in the realm of the rigorous, visceral, and sublime. Recently, the 2017 MacArthur fellow has been performing a sextet of young creative improvisers, featuring saxophonists Nathan Reising and Morgan Guerin, vibraphonist Sasha Berliner, pianist Lex Korten, and bassist Nick Dunston. After a completely packed concert at The Jazz Gallery last spring, the sextet will return to the Gallery with an unprecedented run of five shows over five consecutive evenings, one long set per evening.

Sorey spoke in depth via phone in a conversation about the group’s granular yet uninhibited approach to his music.

The Jazz Gallery: I want to start by asking about the length of each set. Every evening will feature a single set, starting at 7:30pm and stretching at least two hours. What begins to happen for you, physically and mentally, when you hit that two hour mark and beyond?

Tyshawn Sorey: At that point, it’s about the experience of being in the music itself. To me, this is not about performing a “concert.” I don’t care for “performances.” What I am interested in is the art of experience and how our relationship to time evolves over that experience, at which point, at least for me, time doesn’t exist. You lose your sense of time by being immersed in the experience of playing challenging music. You get to a point in the set where you’re not even thinking about time at all: it’s an out-of-body experience. That’s what I’m after in these situations.

When doing extended sets, things move toward a very heightened level of consciousness, effortlessness, and awareness—it’s an experience that you wouldn’t necessarily have in playing a 45- or 60-minute set. That hour and a half, two hour mark is a threshold that we’re used to arriving at during a given performance, but beyond that, you arrive at a different kind of zone, where time no longer exists. No matter the style of the music, I want to get to something well beyond how one feels while merely playing tunes for 45 minutes that contain structures that operate in the same fashion, which brings us to another reason why the sets are so long.

There is so much detail in each composition that we play. I hate stopping in between tunes. I’m not into standing there announcing song titles or cracking jokes between songs trying to be cute, funny, or likeable. I’m only there to do one thing: To play music that expands one’s consciousness, to tap into some beautiful zones, and to get into other areas of music-making that are interesting to me. Well, that’s three things [laughs]! Simply put, my job is to produce the best possible experience of music that one can think of, to give the listener something else to take with them.

TJG: The band is young—everyone’s in their twenties—so that extra length must be a unique aspect of these shows for them, since most of them are probably playing 45- to 90-minute sets at their usual gig.

TS: Right. It’s a different experience for them. And for me, too, because when I play in other people’s groups, we don’t even really get to do that. But ever since 2004, I’ve tended towards doing longer concerts with my group Oblique, and my quartet with Cory Smythe, Chris Tordini, and Ben Gerstein, and then my piano trio, so that hasn’t really changed since the formation of this band.

But in the case of performing with other bands, I’ll never forget one particular experience I had with Vijay Iyer in the summer of 2013 when I lived in Copenhagen, Denmark for a brief time, and I did a month-long tour of Europe with Vijay Iyer and Stephan Crump. In the middle of that tour, on July 13th, George Zimmerman had been acquitted for the murder of Trayvon Martin. We were on our way to board a plane to Berlin at the time of hearing about this, and obviously it was devastating news for all of us. We were scheduled for a performance that same night, at a club called A-Trane. We didn’t really talk about what we were going to play or what we were going to do. We don’t really plan sets anyway. But I’ll never forget: On that night, we basically played a three hour set at this club [laughs]. The audience was with us, from start to finish, all the way.

Because we were so emotionally charged—we were deeply saddened by the news, of course—we wanted to offer something that really was more about celebrating life. Was it mournful? Yes. But we tapped into a very different energy that I don’t think I’d ever experienced before. It was fascinating for me to make music in that space with the understanding of our relationship with what’s going on in the world. To share that with Vijay, who I consider a brother of mine… I’d say it was the most vulnerable I’ve been on any bandstand. I can’t put into words how much that whole experience affected me. That night in Berlin, hearing about all of the crazy stuff that was going on out here at home, and having an opportunity to use our art as a way to relate to our experience, and to express our hopes, our sorrow, our disappointment in society… It was unlike any other experience we’d had together before, or probably since. We were in that same vibe for the rest of that tour, thinking about all of that. I’m emotional, thinking about this… It was deep on so many levels. I’ll never forget it.

TJG: Of course, you can’t go into any other show expecting that kind of thing to happen, but that evening must have showed you that realm is out there.

TS: Absolutely.

TJG: Regarding the music you’re bringing to the Gallery—Last concert featured compositions created during your time in Florida as part of the Rauschenberg residency. Is this the same suite of music? New music? Recomposed? Tell me about what’s on the paper.

TS: It is that music, yet a lot of it has been revised. The last time we presented it in public was, I believe, in Seattle and at the University of North Texas. No two sets are ever the same: that goes without saying. The music is different every night. Something always changes with form, solo structures, the way we navigate the rhythmic material, and approaches to improvising.

Much of the first two-thirds of the entire book of music has since been revised. Additional material has since been added and refined as a result of our having performed this music several times together. These performances have provided us opportunities to get into some other spaces and to think beyond the page, to the point where even the page doesn’t really matter as much as what one does with the material on that page.

In terms of improvising and orchestration, the revisions have led to interesting ideas around form as well. I wanted to make it even more flexible than it was before. When we first did this music at The Banff Center two summers ago, the music was more or less straightforward. Nowadays, the alterations are… they’re not haywire, but there are a lot of them before each performance. Everyone always has to be on their toes. It requires a great degree of focus, discipline, and concentration. Everyone must be aware of what is going on in the music—you can’t just follow your own part. For example, the solo order for a given composition can sometimes change for each performance.

When I put together solo orders or road maps, they are based on what I know about the abilities of each musician. I like to find things in a solo form that I know might, in some way, challenge that musician, and then I’d like to provide that musician an opportunity to improvise over that form. I don’t want there to ever be a ‘comfort zone’ on my bandstand.

After my initial conception, and from what I learned by having everyone read from the same score, I know now that solo orders can work any way I want them to, depending on the reality of the situation for that night. I don’t want the approaches to the solos to ever get stale. I approach this music like a new set of compositions every night, even though we’re reading the same music. People play different parts at different times, and night after night, something is always different.

Additionally, the music for the Sextet in some ways operates similarly to that in my Trio configuration in that, in common practice, you would have all of your music in front of you, accompanied by several (1 – 5) pages of instructions explaining how you would navigate around the various forms, which is what I call the set schematic. In a set schematic, the pieces are modular in several ways; sometimes we don’t play the pieces in sequential order, sometimes we jump between pieces via improvisation based on a group of measures or via open improvisation, sometimes we focus other pieces around one or two “main” compositions. Sometimes we read measures, and even harmonies, backward. Sometimes we come up with solo forms that might seem “scrambled” at first, but they always do make sense, sometimes we transpose chord progressions, et cetera.

This will be the first time doing this music five nights in a row, which I’m really excited about. I thank Rio so much for giving me the chance to do this: If you were there last April when we presented this music, we packed the place. She immediately after the set offered us a week here, and without hesitation I said yes! This venue is very important to me, and we’re especially excited about it, given we’ve never had the opportunity to play this music in front of an audience like this, night after night for five nights… This is not a one-off thing [laughs].

TJG: I want to follow up on your ideas on form. Could you tell me a bit about how you think of form in more depth? What does form do for you in your music, and why is it such an important element?

TS: Form gives musicians a sense of comfort. A sense of confidence, in making certain spontaneous decisions that they might not otherwise make. You learn the form, then you unlearn it. You make it form-less [laughs]. That’s what I’m trying to do here. I want these musicians to internalize the form so much that anything can happen within that form. Then, everyone can be comfortable and one-hundred-percent in the moment.

This way of dealing with form allows for flexibility, and creates a space where there can be no wrong done. Everyone trusts each other, which is what I’m trying to build in this band: a unified, egalitarian aesthetic. Yes, I lay out the groundwork, but at a certain point, I let the music take over, and we trust each other with the risks we take on stage. That scenario where, if something goes wrong on stage, and you get someone vibing someone else… I don’t want that on my bandstand.

As a composer, I pay close attention to form. Even if I’m playing a free improvisation, I’m always thinking about form and craft. It takes us a long time to learn and unlearn these things through practice, so you might as well apply that process across the board, and give the musicians the space to develop a trust that you can’t really get any other way. Form can do a lot of things for one’s sense of focus and their sense of time.

TJG: Obviously, a huge amount of preparation is required, from you and from everyone in the sextet. Tell me a little bit about your expectations for these musicians off the bandstand, before the gig, during rehearsals.

TS: I don’t have a set series of expectations, but the musicians should expect a lot of information from me before we even start rehearsing. At rehearsal, we begin with a talk down of the full two- to three-hour set: the set schematic that I referred to earlier. There will be a lot of clarifications, questions, and other things that may come up. We spend an hour or so talking through things, finding what makes sense from a harmonic angle, discussing how to get from one section to another, or what makes sense in terms of form. It’s a very involved discussion of what’s going to happen.

The second part of the rehearsal, of course, involves actual playing. It’s good for us to play through an abbreviated version of the set. If we find something that doesn’t work, we’ll stop and review some things, and find a way to make it work.

Once we’re done with playing and addressing questions and clarifications, I give the musicians two to three hours between the rehearsal and the gig. I want the musicians to mentally prepare themselves, to empty their minds, to rest, eat, have a non-alcoholic drink, whatever. Don’t even think about the music. That’s how I like to get ready: relax.

So there you have it—the rehearsal process is simply a talkdown, rundown, mental preparation, then arriving at the gig as a tabula rasa—a clean slate. If the music decides to take a different turn, we allow it. At that point, I’m not interested in us trying to make things happen. They happen because we allow them to.

TJG: Before you play, do you do any kind of visualization, audiation, meditation, to put yourself in a kind of conducive mental environment?

TS: I do that before I even get to the rehearsal [laughs]. The drive to the rehearsal is my meditation. I live quite far away from the city, so the drive is good enough for me. Sometimes I don’t even listen to music. Most of the time I’d listen to a podcast or two, or nothing at all.

After I’m done rehearsing the band, I go to a secluded area—usually my car—and just sit there and meditate. I mentally prepare myself until about five minutes before we go on stage, then I’m ready to play. This goes for my own performances, as well as other gigs I do as a sideperson.

I have a funny story about this, another one with Vijay. For example, if we’re playing somewhere like the Jazz Standard, I’ll get there early and meditate in my vehicle, but I won’t go downstairs at all until it’s just about time for me to play. First set always starts at 7:30. You’d find me sitting in the car until 7:25 or so. Vijay will send me a text like, “Hey man, where are you?” I’ll text back, “I’m just upstairs, I’ll be down in a minute.” I don’t come downstairs until 7:28 or 7:29. I’m already on the gig. That means I have to already be there before I’m physically there, and not really socialize and all that before the gig.

When the gig is over, of course I’ll go and socialize, greet fans, chat and geek out about music and drums with people, all that stuff. But before the gig, I need to be by myself. I need to get into a space that’s conducive for me to be focused. This is sacred to me. I’m not up there thinking, “What licks am I going to play?” It’s about aspiring to getting these musicians, this audience, and myself to a higher place.

TJG: In the last minute or two that we have, I’d love to hear about the record you made with this sextet, as well as the future do you envision for this band.

TS: This band will continue to do things together. The record we made is but a snapshot of what we’re able to do. It was simply a snapshot of what happened on that day in the studio. Recordings are good. They get the music out there for all to hear, and having these documents for perusal are a very nice thing. But I’m not at all married to recordings. Anything could change over the course of these five nights at The Jazz Gallery. So when people hear this record once it’s released, it won’t sound anything at all like what we’ve done at the Gallery this week, in terms of form, solo concept, structure, everything that changes with the times. The music we make on a given night is designed only for the audience who shows up, and who decides to stay there with us. The music continues to evolve, and I have a lot of new material that we haven’t even rehearsed yet. Hopefully we’ll get to it this year, should a performance opportunity come our way.

The Tyshawn Sorey Sextet plays The Jazz Gallery from Tuesday, March 3, through Saturday, March 7, 2020. The group features Mr. Sorey on drums, Nathan Reising on alto saxophone, Morgan Guerin on tenor saxophone, Lex Korten on piano, Sasha Berliner on vibraphone, and Nick Dunston on bass. One (long) set at 7:30 P.M. each night. $25 general admission ($15 for members), $35 reserved table seating ($25 for members) for each set. Purchase tickets here.