Meredith Monk's "On Behalf of Nature" at BAM
An "Ellington Christmas" at the Apollo Theater

Tyshawn Sorey Trio at Roulette

by Steven Pisano

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Photo by Steven Pisano

On Wednesday night, jazz composer and drummer Tyshawn Sorey and his trio performed the first in a series of three concerts at Roulette. Piano, bass, drums: it’s a classic jazz combo. But with Sorey at the helm, melodic phrases were as scarce as Martian water. There was no swing, no rhythm, no beat or syncopation. 

One thing this music was--at least most of the night--was quiet. As in: library or church quiet. So quiet, in fact, that I held in my breath at times because the sounds of my own inhaling and exhaling seemed as if they might drown out the performers on stage.

The playbill listed no title for the evening, so one wondered if the music had a title at all (though this same trio released a recording called Alloy last month.) It sounded like a single through-composed piece, lasting over two hours. Another work of Sorey's, “For Kathy Change”, runs three-and-a-half hours, so by comparison this was almost a snippet. Still, my brain cried out for a rest, if only to process what had been heard so far. 

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As I listened, the visual image that stayed in my head was of an old apartment building at night—floorboards settling, radiators hammering, wind whistling through window sashes. The ordinary sounds of ordinary life. Late in the performance, a lush melody suddenly sang out from the piano, like an exotic cactus flower suddenly blooming on a hot, moonless night in the desert. And then, just as suddenly, the lush melody was sucked back into the quiet.

You might expect that as a drummer, Sorey’s compositions would center on percussion. But, surprisingly, it was the piano that often set the mood in long, languorous lines. The drums were used only intermittently, less to set time than to offer accents. A brush. A tap. A clink.

Sorey has the gentlest touch of any drummer I have ever heard. He could probably play percussion on empty eggshells without cracking them. But he didn't let the audience forget that he knows how to command the skins when he wants to—bang, bang, cymbal crash, boom; hey you, in the third row, wake up! Much of the night, Sorey took a back seat to his sidemen, at one point even unseating himself from his kit to just listen to them play. And their playing was top drawer.

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Whether slowly plinking the soprano keys, fingering a delicate romantic line, or ferociously running both hands up and down the full keyboard in hand-over-hand glissandos, Corey Smythe’s magisterial command of the piano was the anchor of the night. And bassist Chris Tordini firmly established groundwork for Sorey and Smythe while commanding an assured voice in several extended solos of his own.

Tyshawn Sorey will be back at Roulette in March to present a different side of his music, as part of a quintet with strings, horns, and guitar in an ensemble called Koan II. Tickets and info on Roulette's website.

(More photos here.)

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