Saturday, October 27, 2018
Tyshawn Sorey - Pillars (Firehouse 12)
I need to write a brief aside about my listening experience over the past few decades. Many regular readers know it, more or less, but as I anticipate that to the extent this review is shared among those not familiar with my history and shifts in taste over the years, it might be a good idea to clarify.
Essentially, since 17, I grew up with an abiding love of jazz, particularly what one might refer to as post-Coltrane jazz; my first jazz album purchase was Ornette's 'Science Fiction' in the spring of 1972. While entirely immersed in this for some 15 years, by the late 80s, I was beginning to sense a lack of new, innovative work. I loved the music of the previous 60-70 years as intensely as ever but, even among musicians who I greatly admired (for example, Roscoe Mitchell, Cecil Taylor, etc.) I increasingly got the feeling that they had done their great work and were now just elaborating on themes they'd developed as relatively young men. This was all well and good--few people have even one great idea in their lives and these folk had a number of them. If they settled into comfortable middle age, I've no reason to complain. But I found myself devoting more of my listening time to music in the post-AMM improvising tradition, the post-Cage "classical" tradition, various music from around the world and more, at the expense of keeping up with developments in jazz (definitional issues with the term aside). I'd dip in now and then, go to the occasional gig. Sometimes, I'd be pleasantly surprised. I recall duo performances at the Vision Festival--Fred Anderson/Harrison Bankhead, Bill Dixon/George Lewis, Barre Phillips/Joe Morris--that were spectacular and hugely moving, but more often, much more often, I'd have the sense of musicians more or less going through the motions. They were good--usually very good instrumentalists, had a huge command of their chops, but the new ideas were few and far between, at least to the extent I could discern. Needless to say, I doubtless missed many a counterexample but one only has so much time and I chose to dwell in areas where my "success" rate was much higher.
All the above to explain my background with regard to Tyshawn Sorey's extraordinary release, 'Pillars', a single composition spread over three CDs, clocking in at ten minutes shy of four hours. I only knew Sorey as a name, associating him with Mitchell and Anthony Braxton, but had never heard any of his music; my loss, no doubt. I was, in fact, surprised to find this release in my mailbox but I'm very happy it turned up.
Sometimes there are manifestations of ideas that occur, burn brightly but evanesce without incurring any follow-up investigations. Michael Mantler's 'Communications' from 1968 always struck me as a prime example. Barry Guy, with his London Jazz Composers Orchestra, attempted to pick up the banner and move it forward, with some arguable success but, in my mind, it remains fertile, untilled territory. Another area was explored by Bill Dixon, particularly in his 'Vade Mecum' sets. My first overriding impression from 'Pillars' was, "Ah, at last! someone's extending Dixon's idea." I think that's part of what in play here and it's no small thing.
Sorey's conception is immense, not simply in terms of length but in spreading a general idea across that span, music that has its composed or preset portions but moves seamlessly enough between those and the (I suspect) longer improvisatory sections that the listener quickly loses much in the way of "episodes" and goes along with the flow in a manner similar to an AMM performance (although the music sounds much different). The notable exception are the three "signposts" that conclude each disc, ultra-low, long tones played by Sorey on the dungchen, a long, Tibetan ceremonial horn. The ensemble deployed, arrived at after several years of work on the piece, has a great deal to do with the overall sound of 'Pillars', deep, dark and rumbling: an octet consisting of Stephen Haynes (trumpet, flugelhorn, cornet, alto horn, small percussion), Ben Gerstein (trombone, electronics), Todd Neufeld (electric and acoustic guitars), Joe Morris (electric guitar, double bass), Carl Testa (double bass, electronics), Mark Helias (double bass), Zach Rowden (double bass), Sorey (conductor, drum set, dungchen, percussion, trombone). The consistency of the group sound, its elasticity and molding of form, is one of the true marvels of this release.
Describing it in detail is a fool's errand. It's so much "of a piece" that any detailed description necessarily misses the point. A few moments: It begins with a pure snare drumroll that lasts several minutes, an opening incantation perhaps and an element that doesn't reappear. We then plunge into an amorphous zone, a cloudy, darkly rambling area with Sorey's deep percussion undergirding an intriguingly clangy guitar. As is, it's attractive if not too unusual--some of Dixon's atmosphere, the guitar maybe recalling the way it's been used in Threadgill's music. But that episode is broken off much more quickly than I'd have expected and the music shifts, smoothly, without awkwardness, to an adjacent territory, darker still. I'll pause to note the wonderful timbral differences in the percussion--the range is enormous but never seems forced or extravagant, always enhancing the general sound. There are dynamic surges and they too seem natural--none of the automatic vaulting into high energy so common among many groups, everything paced and well considered while retaining elements of roughness and surprise. And this is all before the massed appearance of the basses and trombones. From here--and we're only some 18 minuted into Disc One--we begin to approach the real meat of the matter. Throughout, the basses, arco and pizzicato, are used brilliantly, from huge swarms of buzzing to elaborately intricate plucked interweaving, often played off the deep brass (even Hayne's trumpets, etc. tend to be pitched low). Sorey writes in the accompanying notes, "Low frequencies seem under-explored in improvised music. But I wanted to go there, trying to achieve a physical depth of tone and hypnotic drone". That "drone" isn't what many listeners have come to think of; this isn't Radigue. It fluctuates far too much for that, but retains an underlying sense of flow. Not explicit pulse, but underground river flow, disappearing from overt view on occasion but leaving traces that it's still there, below the surface.
Other referents are tough to come by. There are times when I'm reminded of early Art Ensemble explorations, maybe something like 'How Strange/Ole Jed'; Haynes evokes Bowie more than once and, as mentioned, the spirit of Bill Dixon certainly hovers over the proceedings. There are also points, few and far between, when something of the typical over-busyness of many a free jazz improviser surfaces, but those episodes flicker briefly and are soon quelled. Electronics, sometimes dense and active, more often subtle, are integrated very well, growing out of the acoustic ensemble, never feeling added on or used for superficial effect. Again, trying to think of comparisons, perhaps a pointless endeavor, I come up with...Simon Fell? Maybe? But Sorey's work really stands apart.
His ability to maintain not just interest, but fascination over such long duration is amazing. Even if I had the odd quibble about a given patch of music, my interest never came close to flagging. I've listened through three times now, have found new details and relationships on each listen and expect to for a good while. I imagine 'Pillars' will provide rough sledding for listeners more attuned to music in stricter lineage with contemporary experimental jazz--there are few easy footholds. But I'm more interested in getting those listeners in the post-AMM, even Wandelweiser tradition to give this one a try. The music isn't like those, but offers possibilities, beautifully realized here, for parallel investigations that may prove every bit as rewarding.