Tyshawn Sorey Credit: John Rogers

Few configurations have produced music more starkly beautiful and quietly ruminative in recent years than Tyshawn Sorey‘s trio with pianist Cory Smythe and bassist Chris Tordini. Last month the group released its third album, Verisimilitude (Pi), and while superficially less grandiose than last year’s ravishing The Inner Spectrum of Variables, which added three string players to the fold, without reservation I would say it’s the trio’s greatest accomplishment. Two of the pieces were commissions premiered at the 2016 Newport Jazz Festival, so it’s not surprising that the aptly titled opening track “Cascade in Slow Motion” features Sorey’s elegant drumming, a dramatic, subtly surging presence that both lifts the simple, meditative figures elaborated by Smythe and offers a rich focal point on its own, mirroring the same sort tumble of sound voiced on piano.

Sorey continues to be called a jazz percussionist first and foremost. Over the years he’s been a crucial ingredient in bands led by bassist Mario Pavone, pianist Vijay Iyer, and saxophonist Steve Lehman, among many others that nominally play some strain of jazz, but an increasing amount of his time has been devoted to composition, such as his song cycle Josephine Baker: A Portrait. His music has been performed by International Contemporary Ensemble and next spring the prestigious violinist Jennifer Koh will also play a new work by him. This past spring he earned his DMA degree at Columbia University, studying under the tutelage of the great George Lewis, and he recently began teaching at Wesleyan University, filling the chair long occupied by Anthony Braxton, who has retired.

Another piece from the new album, “Flowers for Prashant,” written for the late Chicago filmmaker Prashant Bhargava, is a duo for Smythe and Tordini—a gorgeous excursion into shimmering, rapidly cycling low-end piano notes and hydroplaning arco bass, and as it tapers off morphs into “Obsidian,” in which Smythe uses electronics to expand both his piano and Tordini’s strident bowed figures into billowing clouds of astringent sound before the piece moves into somber explication, with each halting passage spelled out with impressive precision, a shift away from the composer’s Feldman-esque side toward something decidedly more sparse, varied, and thrilling. I often find it a waste of time to split hairs about whether a piece of music sits within this tradition or that—Sorey has carved out his own space throughout his career, and this piece proves it as beautifully as anything he’s ever done. You can experience all eighteen minutes of it below.
The episodic sprawl of “Algid November” is even more magisterial, unfolding in 30 moments that balance a sense surprise and a sense of meticulous control. This trio represents just one thread in Sorey’s ever-expanding arsenal, and like his AACM forefathers he’s forcefully challenging standard practices in both improvised and contemporary classical music. Rarely has experiencing someone throw down the gauntlet been so rewarding.

Today’s playlist:

Ensemble Recherche, Karlheinz Stockhausen: Kontra-Punkte/Refrain/Zeitmasze/Schlagtrio (Wergo)
Punkt 3, Ordnung Herrscht (Clean Feed)
Kelompok Kampungan, Mencari Tuhan (Strawberry Rain)
Jennifer Koh, Alexander Vedernikov & Odense Symphony Orchestra, Tchaikovsky: Complete Works for Violin and Orchestra (Cedille)
Olie Brice Quintet, Day After Day (Babel)