Tyshawn Sorey Credit: John Rogers

Percussionist Tyshawn Sorey has never concerned himself much with doing what a “jazz” drummer is supposed to do. Though his talent in that area is beyond doubt, it’s only a part of his full diapason. He’s a world-class composer who’s dramatically focused his vision in recent years. He’s a powerhouse player, yet on his brilliant 2014 trio album, Alloy (Pi), he’s a faint presence on the music’s surface, playing with exquisite subtlety and allowing remarkable pianist Cory Smythe to dominate the performances of Sorey’s compositions—which owe more to Morton Feldman than to Mark Feldman.

On Sorey’s devastatingly gorgeous new album, The Inner Spectrum of Variables (Pi), he’s occasionally a more forceful presence as drummer, but his role as composer and conductor takes precedence. The six-part suite, spread over two CDs and running almost two hours, is not only his greatest work so far but also one of the year’s most arresting and ambitious recordings. Sorey turns 36 next week, and it staggers the mind to think he’s already accomplished so much—and to imagine where he’ll go next.

In his liner notes to the new album, Sorey cites the influence of composer-improvisers such as Anthony Braxton and Lawrence “Butch” Morris, and notes that The Inner Spectrum “is a highly flexible score that can be performed in a myriad of ways. The version heard on this recording employs conducted improvisation (the score contains a lexicon of visual cues for the conductor to use at any point during a given performance to enable real-time improvisation), but the work can also be realized with the performers following prescribed directives for improvisation or without any improvisation at all.”

Sorey’s group here includes Smythe and Alloy bassist Chris Tordini, joined by three remarkable string players: violinist Chern Hwei Fung, violist Kyle Armbrust (brother of Spektral Quartet violist Doyle), and cellist Rubin Kodheli. I’ve listened to the album four or five times, and I feel like I’m a long way from cracking its genius; I’m consistently unsure about what’s notated and what’s improvised, and that’s a wonderful thing. Sorey’s ideas make room for various traditions and genres, but the result isn’t a pastiche or postmodern goop. Smythe is the central force throughout; on the opener, “Movement I (Introduction),” he plays alone, using a delicacy and melodic sophistication that sounds almost neo-Romantic, and then the music opens up into the second part and invites the rest of the ensemble in. Conjectures about whether a particular passage reflects this tradition or that misses the point of Sorey’s work, because he has the entire world of music on his palette. He fits everything together with elegant fluidity, grace, and logic, enriched by a rich sense of dynamics and a faultless structural sensibility.

Below you can listen to the entirety of the lengthy “Movement IV,” which contains some of the album’s most rhythmic passages as well as a few (dare I say it) jazzlike moments. Of course, this isn’t simply jazz even when it sounds most like jazz: the stunning viola solo by Armbrust employs glissandos that collide academic microtonality and what sounds to me like Indian classical music. I’ve been waiting a while for Sorey to bring this music to Chicago—a few years ago, International Contemporary Ensemble played one of his pieces at the Museum of Contemporary Art—and while no show is announced yet, the drummer is in town tonight. He plays two concerts with pianist Vijay Iyer at Constellation, subbing for Marcus Gilmore in Iyer’s long-running trio with bassist Stefan Crump. Sorey has plenty of experience with the pianist, most notably in another trio called Fieldwork, and though he’s a sub, I’m sure he’ll significantly recast Iyer’s music—he and Gilmore are very different drummers. I’m psyched to hear how it plays out.
Today’s playlist:

Alexander Melnikov, Schumann: Piano Concerto (Harmonia Mundi)
Roky Erickson, Don’t Slander Me (Light in the Attic)
Apartment House, Laurence Crane: Chamber Works 1992-2009 (Another Timbre)
Agostino DiScipio, Hörbare Ökosysteme (Edition RZ)
Eddie Gale, Ghetto Music (Blue Note)