Tyshawn Sorey – Verisimilitude (2017)




The first track on Verisimilitude, Tyshawn Sorey’s newest record and first in a trio format since 2011’s Alloy, presents a fractured vision of jazz: Cory Smythe’s piano, wandering in ever-changing circles but never quite leaving, suggests Bill Evans at his most pensive; while Sorey’s drums recall any number of slow-burn ballads, with the hiss of cymbals and brushes brought to the forefront. But the players aren’t interested in clean aesthetic coherence, instead choosing to pursue sounds down whatever rabbit-holes they reveal. The drums – hiss-rattle percussion, hi-hats, snares, cymbals – focus on texture; the piano – weight and weightlessness, rushing and slowing – on density and volume; and Chris Tordini’s bass – in-time piccolo, heaving groans – on grounding the others. It’s an odd competition of ideas, but each player knows when to push the others and when to back off, working toward a clear goal. When it climaxes in a splatter of notes, it makes sense even if it’s thoroughly foreign. The next track, “Flowers for Prashant,” works in a similar vein, opening with the moan of bowed bass and eventually gives way to a solo piano feature, with vaguely middle-eastern ruminations in the right hand and dark bass rumblings underneath. It develops a certain weight, with Smythe’s playing just as aware of sonic sculpting – volume, mass, growth and retreat – as it was during the opener. It’s a gorgeous song, and it feels like it could go on forever. But it doesn’t, and as he’s quietly rumbling, the bass wails from miles away and the floor drops out.

Sorey has been working in recorded music for a decade, but his live performances – and presence – may be the most illuminating to the way he works. Interviews and profiles never fail to mention his clarity: of thought, of language, of dress. (All black.) When he performs with other musicians as a sideman, he’s typically behind a traditional drum set; when he’s photographed performing his own material, it’s an entirely different story: studiously hunched over bells and glockenspiels, surrounded by gongs and pitched bells, flanked by woodblocks and splash cymbals. There may be a timpani or two in the mix. In some circles, he’s an exciting and visceral jazz drummer; in others, an avant-garde composer and bandleader straddling, or forging, the lines between contemporary jazz and classical music. On Verisimilitude, he is both.

This tightrope was rendered most explicitly on Sorey’s 2016 two-hour opus The Inner Spectrum of Variables, a double-trio record: piano-bass-drums, violin-viola-cello. Neither trio settles into prescribed roles – the piano played both Romantic melodies and jazz-affected accompaniment, and the string trio was as rhythmic as the percussion, if not more so. On both Variables and Verisimilitude, Sorey accompanies his musicians through a foggy and delirious haze of consciously blurred lines: between the 18th and 21st centuries, percussion and melody, improvisation and composition. This is accomplished not only through his scattered playing but also through his bandleading method of “conduction” – “an improvised duet for ensemble and conductor” – adopted from the late Butch Morris, under whom Sorey had an informal apprenticeship. His application of this in live performances is well-documented – measures getting played backwards or reorganized on the fly, parts of a score getting added or subtracted as the group sees fit. When he’s in charge he’s as much an alchemist as a percussionist; that interaction is the spark that makes the music shine.

Beyond the compositional methods employed, another key ingredient used in both Sorey’s live performances and Verisimilitude is his use of silence. As on-stage, where Sorey will draw the ring of a cymbal out until it’s nearly imperceptible, much of the two mammoth tracks on his new record are made up of spaces in between sounds, echoes taken as seriously as initial strikes. There’s a moment nearly seventeen minutes into “Obsidian,” the third track, where Sorey strikes a standing bell, an instrument usually reserved for meditation. He never muffles it, allowing it to ring out uninterrupted for several seconds before adding sudden drum punctures and cymbal crashes. The tones rub against each other, creating an echo that never quite calms down but instead fades away, forming a queasy foundation for an uneasy piece. It’s hard to tell if Sorey’s moving too quickly or too slowly for comfort – should he cover the sound up or let it ring uninterrupted? The listener is left with a sense of vertigo; even with all the stillness in the air, it feels like the ground is crumbling underneath.

Sorey’s not the only one working in service of this unsteadiness. Smythe’s piano is in turns beautiful and jarring, with neither side winning, and Tordini’s bass is less an instrument than a tectonic plate, its higher-pitched notes rendered ghostly through electronic manipulation and its low-end suggesting glacial movement, imperceptibly slow and impossibly powerful. When these players let themselves slow down even more, the results are strange and scattered. The first notes Smythe plays on “Obsidian” are a low-end muttering, dwarfed by the echo of Tordini’s bass – a far cry from the previous two tracks – but he works his way towards dark splatters of notes, room-filling piano rolls, a toy piano, and advancing storm clouds; his playing, like that of his companions, is equal parts reactive and directive, as willing to dominate the conversation as it is to cede the spotlight. It’s an elegant way of playing a music that is at times anything but.

Much of Verisimilitude seems concerned with an active dialogue between dual poles of beauty and queasiness, bringing them together rather than holding them in opposition. This can make Verisimilitude feel distant and abstract – at worst, unpleasantly random. But hearing the trio find an energy to work around and push each other out of their comfort zones is its own kind of thrill. On “Algid November,” for example, the trio suddenly shifts from icy drums-and-piano to warm, ECM-style jazz, as the cymbal splashes and bass plucks from moments ago are rendered soft and soothing rather than harsh or challenging, and the piano finds a melody and lives in it. But then the piano grows restless, pushing further and further away from the upper register, returning to the dark clusters that colored “Obsidian.” Sorey’s drumming turns insistent and driving, careening the group into unexpected territories – later, he sends the piano off a cliff with a smack on the floor tom, the piece remaining dissonant and uneasy as Smythe reacts with a stumbling right-hand. Drum rolls and piano plunks bring the piece back to life, bells and woodblocks and cymbals finding their way into the mix; the bass gets plucked too hard, becoming the closest thing to a melody the maelstrom gets. Eventually, cymbals ring so loudly as to swallow the rest of the chaos whole, and everyone takes a breath as reverberations fill the room. This sort of sonic metamorphosis, from tumult to serenity and back again, is characteristic of Verisimilitude’s eighty minutes: a group navigating an ever-changing landscape of sound and silence.

It’s this contrast that makes Verisimilitude shine as brightly as it does. It’s highly specific music, demanding that the listener puts as much into the music as they can. If listened to passively, it’s often cryptic and unengaging, eighty minutes of piano, bass, drums, and silence that simply isn’t worth the effort. But, given time, the record opens and reveals boundless depths, with more and more bits of instrumental riddles revealing themselves each time. Its largest moments, which can last several minutes, can make the record feel cavernous and monolithic, like a gothic and labyrinthine architecture discovered centuries after the earth swallowed it up. With nothing but piano, bass, and drums to guide, it can be equally unnerving and rewarding, confounding and fascinating, exhausting and energizing. For better and worse, it’s hard to know what’s around the corner; often, it’s nothing at all. But when exploring the halls of Verisimilitude, a language seems to appear, unfamiliar but almost decipherable. It’s impossible to know exactly what Smythe, Sorey, and Tordini are saying to each other throughout the record, but it’s just as difficult to stop listening.

Author: Michael

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