After a decade or so where jazz innovation was led by pianists, drummers have now taken charge, offering innovations that open ensembles to a wider range of rhythms and in some cases create new, subtle hybrids of jazz and other styles. The work of Tyshawn Sorey, who is also a virtuoso on piano and trombone as well as a heralded composer, fits right into this trend. His new recording “Verisimilitude” (Pi Recordings) is his third significant release since 2014 and solidifies his role in bridging the gap between jazz and classical music.
Mr. Sorey, who turned 37 in July, celebrated with a drums-and-saxophone duet concert at the Stone in New York featuring kindred spirit John Zorn. In the concert, Mr. Sorey’s
eruptions of percussion contrasted with Mr. Zorn’s pithy squeals and urgent roars. On this new recording, his approach is completely different. The music is austere and often somber. In the “Verisimilitude” press release, Mr. Sorey cites classical composers Claude Debussy, Morton Feldman and Iannis Xenakis as major influences. On podcasts, he has also spoken of Elvin Jones’s work with the John Coltrane Quartet as being an inspiration. “Verisimilitude” most directly links to ’60s jazz classics like Roscoe Mitchell’s “Sound,” Muhal Richard Abrams’s “Levels and Degrees of Light” and the Art Ensemble of Chicago’s “People in Sorrow.” He first heard this music as a teenager growing up in Newark, N.J., where he was mentored by the poet Amiri Baraka, who occasionally performed with jazz accompaniment.
“Verisimilitude” features pianist Cory Smythe and bassist Chris Tordini, which makes it look like a conventional piano trio, and drummers have done great work in that setting in the past decade, most notably Chad Taylor’s 2009 recording “Circle Down” (482 Music), but “Verisimilitude” goes in a different, more abstract direction. “Cascade in Slow Motion,” the first and shortest track on the album, is a slow, brooding piece that smartly builds a gentle flow of piano chords, bowed basslines and percussion into a dramatic climax. “Flowers for Prashant” is a tribute to the late filmmaker Prashant Bhargava, with whom Mr. Sorey worked. The music is elegant and spare. The centerpiece of the recording is “Algid November,” a slow, 30-minute piece with episodes of scintillating play. Like Feldman’s best work, it rearranged my sense of time. Mr. Sorey’s ensemble uses space magnificently, thus it’s a recording that is either best heard through headphones or played at high volume so that it doesn’t risk receding into the background.
The release of “Verisimilitude” continues Mr. Sorey’s breakout moment. His previous two releases, “Alloy” (Pi Recordings, 2014) and “The Inner Spectrum of Variables” (Pi Recordings, 2016), won praise in both the jazz and classical communities. He presented his work “ Josephine Baker : A Portrait” at the 2016 Ojai Festival and he has been commissioned to write a piece that will have its premiere at Opera Philadelphia and at Carnegie Hall in 2018. Earlier this year, he received his doctorate in musical arts from Columbia University, and he was named an assistant professor at Wesleyan University.
In addition to Messrs Sorey and Taylor, such drummers as Jeff Ballard, Marcus Gilmore, Eric Harland, Allison Miller, Kendrick Scott, Ches Smith, Nate Smith, Nasheet Waits, Dan Weiss and Matt Wilson are reshaping jazz’s boundaries. On “Verisimilitude” Mr. Sorey’s music may sound as if it’s closer to contemporary classical conventions, but much of it was worked out during a November 2015 gig at the Village Vanguard, jazz’s most famous venue, where during 12 sets in six nights his trio amazed audiences with its unique blend of composed and improvised music.
Mr. Johnson writes about jazz for the Journal.