Drummer and composer Tyshawn Sorey has been a regular presence at The Jazz Gallery for more than a decade as a sideman, a member of collaborative ensembles, and a leader in his own right. Both his drumming and his compositions encompass a huge range of sounds and moods, from ecstatic and frenetic rhythms to sparse meditations.
This weekend marks a special occasion for Sorey. Not only is he taking up residency at the Gallery for a whole weekend’s worth of shows, but he is also celebrating the release of his newest album as a leader, Alloy (Pi Recordings). Featuring Cory Smythe on piano and Chris Tordini on bass, the record showcases the full range of Sorey’s musical personality and prowess. We caught up with him by phone to discuss his musical aesthetic and the band’s collaborative performance process:
The Jazz Gallery: One of the notable things about the music on your record is that all of it is through-composed to one degree or another. How do you conceive of integrating improvisation into these larger preconceived structures?
Tyshawn Sorey: I might go out on a limb by saying this, but I don’t really see those two worlds as very distinct from one another. I’ve always thought of improvisation as spontaneous composition, really. What each of these pieces defines is the space in which spontaneous composition can happen.
As long as it’s functioning within the same language, the piece as a whole can maintain its identity. That’s essentially what I aim to do in all of my works that contain improvisation. The line between what’s improvised and what’s composed is completely obliterated.
While each piece has its own identity, it’s also malleable. Depending on the venue and depending on the performance dynamic, the piece can come out differently every time we play it. Before every concert, Chris, Cory, and I will meet an hour or hour and a half in advance to run down a different form, so each performance of the piece is different. We’re negotiating areas where we’re on the page and then go off the page, and we figure out alternative plans to go through the form. The performances on the record are condensed versions of those pieces.
On “Returns,” the first piece on the record, the piece takes about 17 minutes in recorded form, but can take 40 minutes when we’re playing it live. But even when we stretch, the character of the materials themselves remain strong—hence the title, Alloy.
TJG: How much latitude do you give to Chris and Cory in terms of letting them push pieces in different directions that you may or may not have intended? Would this fundamentally change the identity of the piece?
TS: I definitely do have that flexibility when it comes to performance. I try not to say too much in terms of directing where the improvisations go because Chris and Cory have had a lot of experience playing my music. They already have a good idea of what the concept is in each piece. When we get together to rehearse, we try not to improvise at all, because I want to be surprised by what happens in performance.
Even though the music is through-composed and suggests certain directions, performers can push against it and make it a different thing. The performers are assigned some sort of “job” in the piece, but they can run with it or push against it. I try to allow for as much individual freedom as possible. It always works when playing with these guys, no matter what they do, so that’s why I keep playing with them.
TJG: You cover really huge stylistic ground on this record. There’s fast and rhythmic stuff, there’s sparse stuff, stuff with no tempo, tonal harmonies, non-tonal harmonies … What interests you about working with such a varied array of materials in these pieces?
TS: Musical multiplicity, which is how I think of it, or what Anthony Braxton calls “composite reality,” means to me that all these different musical elements are interchangeable. Whenever I write, I try to think more about my personal experience and less about the idea of style. I compose having no real style in mind. I’ve always been active in varied musical communities in New York and elsewhere, so what I wanted to do was to create a recording that deals with that experience.
I didn’t want to put out a piano trio record expressly devoted to jazz or anything remotely like it. I wanted to challenge the medium in a lot of ways, having the instruments do things that wouldn’t happen in a typical jazz trio concert. I wanted to do something that was truly personal, something that connected my interests and the multiple communities that I work in.
TJG: Do you attempt to work with the materials in a way to create a sense of continuity, or are you more interested in setting up juxtapositions?
TS: I would tend to go with the latter. I don’t like the idea of mixing different things together just for the sake of doing it or for the sake of showing that I know this style, but I do think a lot about the juxtaposition of materials and the order in which these things happen. I feel juxtaposition communicates its own personality and its own life, and different listeners can interpret that differently. I care more about that result than about just putting different things together.
I can get surprised myself when I’m composing and putting different materials together. I’ll have moments when I’m like, “Wow! This really does work!” I might not even know what the piece is at first. It takes a while for certain things to grow on me as well.
TJG: So this part of your compositional process feels more intuitive than systematic?
TS: Well, it’s a mix of both. I do think systematically when it comes to certain things like creating certain compositional parameters, but, in terms of bringing all the different sections and materials into one composite world, you could say that is more intuitive.
I know that there are some people out there who say that systems are superior to the concept of intuition, but I see them as both being equal in the realm of composition—they’re just different concepts and can work together, too. Like in terms of the album order, I had to think a lot about how to get from one composition into the next and to make these pieces work for the record rather than live.
For example, on the third track, I gave an improvisational instruction to Chris and Cory to do different things with all of the musical materials that spawned the composition itself. After we recorded the second track and then did the third as written, I had this feeling that it didn’t work in the way I wanted it to, so we spent a couple of hours on that third piece figuring out how we were going to make it work. Overall this was a nitpicky thing, but it definitely was an intuitive process.
TJG: Do you think that understanding this collaborative music-making process is important to getting how the music itself works?
TS: I think more about what the product ends up being. My main interest in the end is communication. I’m interested in taking the listener through an experience that is personal and meaningful on every level. I like to give the listener some kind of cleansing experience.
People came up to me with tears in their eyes after a recent concert at the Gallery where we played this material, and they told me how connected they felt to the music and to us as a band. By communicating with each other as a band, we’re better able to communicate with the audience. This is the experience that I’m looking to give to the audience, and I think our process allows us to do that.
TJG: One thing that you do on the record and in live performance is to change your drum and cymbal setup partway through a piece. How did you come up with doing this, and why do you change your setup rather than use a single large setup?
TS: I’ve been interested in timbre my whole life. I started exploring this firsthand when I did some work with the New Jersey Percussion Ensemble and played a couple of pieces with them. I had a pretty elaborate percussion setup for these pieces, so I thought it would be really cool to have that kind of setup in a jazz context, but I also had to think about making it economical. I began to think about how I could get the most sounds that I could in the most efficient way. I usually bring an array of cymbals to every gig, and I use configured setups for each composition. I try to be as pragmatic as possible in trying to get the sounds I want in a small space.
You’re right that I could have my own extended setup, but that creates its own problems. I wouldn’t want to have this extended drum kit and only play three or four notes on a vibraphone. I like trying to get as many sounds as I can from a small setup, which comes from watching guys like Joey Baron or Milford Graves get all of this texture and all of this color out of a basic drum kit.
A lot of it comes from being comfortable with the setup you have, whether it’s really large or very small. Like, if I had to play this music on just one snare drum, how would I make that work? I think of it as a way to challenge myself rather than having everything there at my disposal. When I have everything at my disposal, I actually feel more limited.
TJG: It’s like you feel obligated to use all of those sounds and won’t respond as musically as you would with a small setup.
TS: Yeah, exactly. It can break my concentration on the music. It’s like, “Oh I haven’t played this instrument yet, so let me go over there.” I don’t want to do that when I’m in the moment making music with the band. I like to be in one place and make whatever decisions I can make and respond to the music in a way that is natural and 100% in tune with everybody.
N.B.: Advance copies of Alloy will be available for purchase at the Gallery this weekend.
Tyshawn Sorey Trio performs music from their new album, “Alloy,” this Friday and Saturday, October 17th and 18th, 2014, at The Jazz Gallery. The performances will feature Sorey on drums, Cory Smythe on piano, and Chris Tordini on bass. Sets are at 8 and 10 p.m., and tickets are $22.00 ($12.00 for Members). Purchase tickets here.