Tyshawn Sorey Takes the Before & After Challenge
Commentary from a trans-idiomatic drummer-composer
A Newark, N.J., native currently residing in Brooklyn, drummer-composer-pianist Tyshawn Sorey, 31, has emerged as a creative force in recent years as both a leader and as a sideman to the likes of Steve Coleman, Vijay Iyer, Wadada Leo Smith, Butch Morris, Muhal Richard Abrams and Dave Douglas. A protégé of composers Anthony Braxton and Alvin Lucier, both of whom he studied with at Wesleyan University, Sorey released his debut as a leader, the introspective two-CD set That/Not, in 2007 on the Firehouse 12 label. He followed with a minimalist, Zen-like approach to the guitar-bass-drums format on 2009’s Koan (482). His latest, Oblique - I on Pi Recordings, is a typically personal, cerebral affair that explores a wider range of dynamics and complexity than his previous outings. Made up of 10 pieces chosen from a collection of Sorey’s “41 Compositions,” it features alto saxophonist Loren Stillman, guitarist Todd Neufeld, bassist Chris Tordini and pianist John Escreet. “I developed that book of music for this band between 2002 and 2006,” he explains. “The funny thing is, the group stopped performing in 2007, and we only started coming together again just this year. So I was glad to be able to document this music with that group.”
A prolific composer, Sorey doesn’t distinguish between his writing and his work behind the kit. “It’s all in one package,” he says. “And even as a drummer I try to have a composerly intent. There are so many drummer-composers who came before me who are very important for me, and yet not a lot of people talk about them—people like Joe Chambers and Freddie Waits, for instance. People talk about their drumming but not their compositional output. So I think there needs to be some sort of development for drummer-composers to be able to present their work, sort of like what has been going on with FONT [Festival of New Trumpet Music]. Because too many times we’re often looked at as sidemen, or not musicians at all. For me, that’s not what I’m going for.”
Having already attained his master’s degree from Wesleyan, Sorey is now pursuing doctoral studies at Columbia University. This was his first Before & After session.
1. Don Cherry
“Awake Nu” (from Where Is Brooklyn?, Blue Note). Cherry, cornet, composer; Pharoah Sanders, tenor saxophone; Henry Grimes, bass; Ed Blackwell, drums. Recorded in 1966.
BEFORE: I’ve heard this song many times but I can’t guess who it is. What I especially like about the drummer is he’s so very tasteful in his approach; he’s not getting in the way of whatever is going on in the music. And even though he’s playing time, it doesn’t feel like it, in the sense that it’s not locked into a number of bars or anything like that. The way he phrases time changes a lot, it’s very elastic, which is what I’m looking to do as a drummer, in a different context. I love how he gets out of that whole role-playing position, where he’s only playing ride cymbal, and then in that brief moment starts playing just the drums themselves and then he goes back to playing time on a ride cymbal. You can definitely hear time throughout this whole thing, but he’s also very much reacting to the moment. Is it Art Taylor?
AFTER: Ed Blackwell is a very influential drummer for me. Though I don’t know this recording, I’ve heard several recordings that he’s done with Ornette Coleman and other musicians. I know about his studies of African drumming and how it’s all put together in his so-called jazz playing—like how he’s able to group things that way and how you can feel time in any kind of way that you want to. He gives the people he plays with that kind of freedom. I like how multifunctional he is, that he doesn’t feel the need to play just one role. And the way he tunes his drums is so personal. Sonically, everything he plays is so clear. All of these musicians are happening to me. I recognized Pharoah right away, of course, and Henry Grimes is someone I have a relationship with as a performer. So it’s nice to have that kind of connection. I gotta get this record.
2. Gerald Cleaver—Uncle June
“Gremmy” (from Be It As I See It, Fresh Sound New Talent). Cleaver, drums, composer; Mat Maneri, viola; Drew Gress, bass; Andrew Bishop, bass clarinet; Tony Malaby, tenor saxophone; Craig Taborn, piano. Recorded in 2009.
BEFORE: Is that Gerald Cleaver? He’s another one of those drummers who gets a great sound out of his instrument. Sonically he doesn’t sound like a drummer to me. Like Ed Blackwell, he really sounds more like a melodic percussionist. How he’s able to get all these different sounds out of the drum kit is fascinating to me. I like the way he tunes his drums as well: While they have a more mellow quality to them, as opposed to Blackwell’s drums, just by the sound I immediately knew it was Gerald.
I greatly admire Gerald Cleaver as a composer and think that he definitely should present his work more. For this particular project you can hear that he wrote for every member of the ensemble. It’s not a thing of, “Here’s the head, then let’s play free after that, then play the head out.” I feel that each part of the composition that gets into an improvisational space fits for a certain member or personality in the group. And it’s amazing that Gerald, as a composer, is able to distinguish between all those qualities and play for each improviser differently. Listening to this reminds me of how I’ve always wanted to approach playing drums as an improviser. I don’t want to play the same way for every soloist, because every soloist has a different personality. Also, I feel it’s just so honest how Gerald’s approaching the material here. It doesn’t feel like he’s trying to play a ton of stuff as a drummer to show how technically fluid he is, because obviously he is. Just by virtue of the fact that he’s accompanying each soloist differently, that alone is incredible technique for me. It requires a certain kind of mindset to be able to do that. So this is a very special drummer. And he’s also a very big influence on my work, for sure.
3. Bill Stewart
“Four Hand Job” (from Incandescence, Pirouet). Stewart, drums, composer; Larry Goldings, Hammond organ; Kevin Hays, piano. Recorded in 2008.
BEFORE: This is a tough one. Two keyboards and drum set. It kind of reminds me a little bit of my recording Koan, where there are some pieces for two guitars and drum set and there’s no frontline kind of a thing; that’s what I like about this. A lot of drummer-led groups tend to have a frontline and then the rhythm section behind that. On this recording the roles shift all the time; there’s no set parameter for each instrumentalist. I like it very much. Is Gary Versace on organ?
AFTER: Even though each [of the three drummers we just heard] has a precision to their playing, it’s expressed in different ways. It was very hard to recognize Bill’s playing. I hear a lot of drummers nowadays whose cymbals sound a lot like what these sound like, so it was very hard for me to detect who it actually was. I love Bill’s playing. During my high school days I used to listen to his work with Larry Goldings and Peter Bernstein, and also the stuff he did with Michael Brecker. He tunes his drums in a more traditional kind of way but what he chooses to play on them is not traditional at all.
There’s the argument that sometimes when you tune your drums in a traditional kind of way, automatically it’s not going to work in a more improvisatory context. That is true in some contexts. For example, you can’t go to a so-called funk gig and have this same kind of drum tuning and the same kind of sound, because it’s not going to sound like what the music is supposed to sound like, which is a concept I don’t believe in anyway. I think you should be able to play whatever style you want to play and tune your drums however you like. But the fact that Bill is starting to use little cymbals with his setup along with his more traditional bebop tuning on his kit is interesting to me. And the fact that he’s still able to express himself in a freely improvised way is what’s challenging. And I think he met that challenge in a really nice way on this record. Also, I like the idea of having these so-called weird orchestrations. But listening to this, it definitely belongs together. It sounds like he wrote this music specifically for that instrumentation. I need to get this record also.
4. Jeff “Tain” Watts
“Edwardian Overture/Jonesin’ (for Elvin)” (from Family, Dark Key). Watts, drums, composer; David Kikoski, piano; Steve Wilson, alto saxophone; James Genus, bass. Recorded in 2010.
BEFORE: Jeff “Tain” Watts is one of the drummer-composers who is always going outside of what he knows, so there’s always something new to discover in what he does. His music isn’t about one type of thing. For me, it stretches in a gamut of situations and there’s really a lot of compassion and love to it. And though he is one of the most badass drummers out here, this doesn’t sound like some drum-oriented thing. He doesn’t have anything to prove at this point. When I found out that Tain left Branford Marsalis’ project—no disrespect to Branford at all—I was excited because I knew that he was going to get into his drummer-composer thing on a deeper level. I think that’s important for every drummer-composer: to be able to take that stand and put their own work out there, to have their own music be viewed on the same level as it was viewed as a sideman. That’s really inspiring to me.
I kind of followed suit in my move some years ago, when I left several projects I played in as a sideman so I could pursue my own music. I had a great time in those bands, and no disrespect to them, but being known only as a sideman wasn’t enough for me. So to see that Tain is putting out more records of his own music is awesome. And for me, his music has nothing to do with genres. It’s genre-bending, for lack of a better word. There are elements of so-called jazz in the music, but he also approaches the drums with these other sensibilities that don’t necessarily relate to jazz. Like, his drums don’t sound like the way a typical jazz drummer would tune his drums. He has a kind of rich, dark, big sound on his drum kit, and that’s the sound that I tend to gravitate to more.
Tom Rainey is another example of a drummer who has a sound that doesn’t necessarily sound like any kind of jazz tuning. And that’s what I appreciate, because I find that jazz tuning doesn’t necessarily work for everything that I’m doing. Tain was probably one of my biggest influences coming up and wanting to learn how to play drums.
5. Vijay Iyer Trio
“Historicity” (from Historicity, ACT). Iyer, piano, composer; Stephan Crump, bass; Marcus Gilmore, drums. Recorded in 2009.
BEFORE: [within two notes] That’s Historicity. I know this record well. What’s so special about this trio is it doesn’t sound like your typical piano trio: now here comes the piano solo, then the bass solo, then the drum solo. It’s not broken up like that. There’s this kind of no-solo approach, which I really dig. I just played a session with Tim Berne yesterday where we all played together but there were no real moments for solos or anything like that, and I really dig that a lot. A lot of the groups that I’m in kind of function in that way, where there’s no real focus on any one instrument or any one role. That’s what I think is so special about this trio.
And, of course, that’s Marcus Gilmore. I just love the fact that Marcus, like Tain, does not limit himself to any genre of music. I’ve heard Marcus play in all kinds of situations, from so-called funk music to acoustic jazz to free jazz. And no matter what the situation is you’ll know it’s Marcus Gilmore just because of how he’s able to tune his drums and the clarity of his ideas and the degree to which he executes them. Marcus and I have played together in Steve Coleman’s projects where we had the whole two-drummer thing going. We’ve done tours like that and it just felt so natural to play with him. It sounded like there was one drummer playing on all of those gigs. And that takes me back to the days of listening to James Brown, where he would have two, sometimes three drummers and you wouldn’t even know it. So we had an instant connection like that in Steve Coleman’s project. Marcus, along with Tain and a lot of the other current drummers who we’re checking out today, are what I like to call trans-idiomatic musicians, where there’s no discrimination to style. They’ve all studied so much music to the point where they have that freedom and ability to do whatever it is they want to do. And Marcus—this guy can practically do anything. I mean, it’s sick!
6. Roy Haynes
“Milestones” (from Roy-alty, Dreyfus Jazz). Haynes, drums; Jaleel Shaw, alto saxophone; Martin Bejerano, piano; David Wong, bass; Roy Hargrove, trumpet. Recorded in 2011.
BEFORE: That’s Roy Haynes. His flat ride cymbal is a give-away. Plus, he has such a signature time feel, how he plays time over the head. Also, the stuff he’s doing with his left hand, that kind of gave it away for me. Here’s a man who’s had a six-decade or more career having done this music, and amazingly he’s still able to approach material from the so-called bebop tradition in a very fresh way. And even though he uses that vocabulary in his playing, he always has a very different way of approaching the music all the time, and it’s always interesting to me. This is Roy Haynes playing “Milestones,” but he’s not playing it the same way he played it in 1945; he’s playing it the way Roy Haynes plays now. To me, he’s a type of drummer who is not stuck in any particular place, and I especially dig that about Roy.
I first saw Roy play at the Newport festival in 1992. I still have it on video. It was with Chick Corea, Joshua Redman, Wallace Roney and Christian McBride. They were playing “Tempus Fugit” and at some point Roy takes this solo where it’s basically a three-note grouping and he’s moving it all around the drum kit to the point where you lose where the form is. To this day I’m trying to figure out how that band came back in right away after his solo. I remember Billy Hart telling me some years ago when I studied with him, “It’s not really about how many things you can play or how many things you can do. It’s about how many ways you can do one thing.” And that’s what Roy was doing in that solo: taking a simple idea and developing a kind of compositional solo over a form like that. Even though Roy is not a composer, per se, he has a very composerly way of constructing the way he deals with the form and also the way he solos on tunes. It’s as compositional as anything else—just as important as the actual playing of the head of someone else’s tune. It’s a deep, really deep thing that he does on the drums. I hope to be like Roy when I grow up.
7. Paul Motian/Chris Potter/Jason Moran
“Ten” (from Lost in a Dream, ECM). Motian, drums, composer; Jason Moran, piano; Chris Potter, tenor saxophone. Recorded in 2009.
BEFORE: [almost immediately] That’s Paul Motian. I really love this record a lot. Paul is another drummer who sonically is very interesting to me. He has a really deep sound to his kit. It doesn’t sound like a conventional so-called bebop tuning; it’s a very personal sound. A lot of drummers might not like his cymbal sound because it’s a high-pitched ride cymbal that he plays, but so what? You should be able to make music on a trash can and still make everybody sound good—that’s the drummer’s responsibility. Paul has such an internal sense of time that I hope I have achieved in some kind of way on my own. A lot of the way that I deal with time nowadays is largely influenced by how he plays. He might just play one hit every couple of seconds or something—and this is over a bebop tune! And people in the audience might think, “Oh, he’s just randomly hitting shit.” But actually, Paul’s foot is often silently tapping along to the time throughout the whole thing, so it’s not random at all. He is playing free in the sense that he has the ability to internalize time on the level that he’ll be able to play whatever it is he wants to play and still not get lost in the form. And it just feels so good every time he does it. He remains one of my favorite drummers to listen to.
Paul’s another musician who is not necessarily a drummer in the sense of what we think a drummer is. He’s more of a melodic percussionist, as is Jeff “Tain” Watts, Bill Stewart, Gerald Cleaver, Brian Blade and all these guys. Each one has a different way of playing melodically and yet the way they function is very similar, just in terms of being melodic percussionists and not necessarily drummers who have a need to keep time on a ride cymbal.
I never got to meet Paul personally. I’ve always wanted to meet him, and every time I went to the Vanguard I was always too shy to introduce myself. But one day I will go up and introduce myself and just thank him for all the contributions that he’s made to drumming. To be able to turn the notion of jazz drumming upside down like Paul did is really something special. His approach isn’t super clean in the tradition of bebop drumming, it’s just a very melodic approach to drumming that is very unique. And like Blackwell and Gerald Cleaver, he has a very different way of approaching how to accompany different soloists. Because each soloist has his own personality, and what Paul is doing is basically putting a highlight on that.
And the way he transitions from one way of accompanying to another way of accompanying is so seamless—that’s especially what I dig about his playing. It’s a very trans-idiomatic way of dealing with the music, and I respect him a lot for that. I also like the idea that Paul integrates a lot of so-called free-ish compositions into the set, in between playing ballads and standards. It’s a very diverse program, and that’s the very definition of what a trans-idiomatic musician is. For me, I’m more interested in diversifying myself as a musician and not being stuck in any particular bag. Because I don’t consider myself a jazz musician; I don’t consider myself any kind of musician. I consider myself a student of music. I’m a trans-idiomatic musician. I don’t have any opposition to anything, really. And somebody like Paul is another example of that.
8. Andrew Cyrille with Greg Osby
“Cyrille in Motion” (Low Blue Flame, TUM). Cyrille, drums; Osby, alto saxophone, composer. Recorded in 2005.
BEFORE: Is that Doug Hammond? It reminds me of him. I know the saxophone player, Greg Osby, but the drummer is hard for me to guess.
AFTER: Andrew Cyrille is another one of those guys who is interested in all aspects of rhythmic vocabulary. He’s been all over the world and he’s integrating all these different types of rhythms into his playing. I’ve never seen a drummer get so many different sounds out of his kit as Andrew. I had a mind-blowing experience when I first met him at a festival in Europe. I was there with Fieldwork [Vijay Iyer, Steve Lehman] and he was playing with Marilyn Crispell and Henry Grimes. Andrew took this solo where he would play the snares with his teeth, doing all these rhythms. I can’t even imagine how much that must’ve hurt. This is one of the first experiences I’ve had with regards to how to approach the physicality of live performance, which is a thing that I’ve always been interested in but didn’t necessarily know how to apply it. So that was inspiring on one level. And his records with the Cecil Taylor Unit and this duet record that he did with Jimmy Lyons [1982’s Burnt Offering on Black Saint] were very inspiring to me. Not only does Andrew approach the drums from a very melodic perspective, he knows how to play time in a bebop context. But the drums are not strictly a time-keeping instrument for him. That’s what I like about drummers like Andrew and Paul. They all have various ways of exploring the kit as a sonic instrument—sometimes by playing with sticks, sometimes by using your teeth on the snares or using your whole body to get certain sounds out of it. I do that sometimes. The drum kit is embodied in me and what I have to do is bring that out. And listening to Cyrille has always gotten me into that space where you should be able to approach the instrument from all these different perspectives.
Also, the way he uses space is very interesting. Just because he’s not touching the drums at a certain point doesn’t mean that he’s not playing the music at all. The way Andrew approaches drumming is like breathing to me. And what he has taught me in my listening to his work, and also meeting him and playing with him, is that idea of physicality in live performance and also the idea of responding to everything. Han Bennink is another one like that. These guys don’t interact to just the music itself, they also interact to the environment, the listeners, the room itself. All of these different things matter to them. The fact is, Andrew is another trans-idiomatic musician. He plays everything from time to silence, he gets a lot of different sounds out of the instrument, and he’s so in the moment, all the time. You never know what’s going to happen next with him.