Tyshawn Sorey Trio: Verisimilitude
Pi Recordings

Some serious revising of expectations is required when confronting Verisimilitude's idiosyncratic take on the jazz piano trio tradition. Every seeming convention associated with said tradition is upended by drummer Tyshawn Sorey on the five-track collection, so much so that one might be better to regard it as an electro-acoustic exploration that merely happens to involve piano, bass, and percussion as opposed to a jazz recording starring a soloing pianist and accompanying rhythm section.

Even a cursory scan of Sorey's CV shows him to be a man of formidable intellect as well as intrepid artist. He's played with forward thinkers such as Vijay Iyer, Steve Lehman, George Lewis, Steve Coleman, and Roscoe Mitchell, and is as comfortable improvising as playing notated material. That he's able to hardly surprises considering his academic background: after completing his doctoral studies at Columbia University earlier this year, he succeeded in September his mentor, the recently retired Anthony Braxton, as an Assistant Professor at Wesleyan University. An informal apprenticeship with the late cornetist Butch Morris, famed for his 'conduction' method, also exerted a lasting influence on Sorey: when playing with his trio, he'll sometimes cue his bandmates to play certain measures backward, and, reminiscent of Morris, Sorey has guided the players in his Koan II septet with hand gestures. Indicative of his reach, his composed work Josephine Baker: A Portrait appeared on The New York Times' ‘Best Classical Music of 2016' list.

A special kind of player is needed to present Sorey's music, and pianist Cory Smythe (International Contemporary Ensemble, Hilary Hahn) and bassist Chris Tordini (Claudia Quintet, Matt Mitchell) are clearly up to the task. There are challenges aplenty, especially when the material is so much about textural sound-sculpting that it warrants comparison to the electro-acoustic explorations of Lewis and the time-suspending works of Morton Feldman. Venturing far beyond the confines of the standard drum kit, Sorey enriches the sound field with a broad array of percussion, while Smythe does much the same by augmenting acoustic piano with toy piano and electronics.

As if designed to purposely belie the contention that Verisimilitude harbours no connection to standard jazz trio playing, “Cascade in Slow Motion” opens the album with five minutes very much rooted in that tradition, even if its angular melodies pursue a skewed take on it; there's no denying, however, that the elegant interplay between the three isn't all that far removed from what other trio practitioners have done in the past. It's the subsequent four pieces, which range from eleven to thirty-one minutes in length, that put the greatest possible distance between Sorey's album and other piano trio projects.

Titled in memory of filmmaker Prashant Bhargava, with whom Sorey worked on a film project, “Flowers for Prashant” presents the drummer very much in composer mode when it's entirely given over to a dramatic, drone-inflected rumination by Smythe. Electronics figure heavily into the sound design of “Obsidian,” where instrument sounds echo into the distance and notes extend into the pauses between the notes. With standard meter suspended, the music lurches in slow motion and gradually assumes the form of a drifting, sometimes convulsive flow of percussion flourishes and acoustic and toy piano gestures. Things take a tumultuous turn halfway through, with a soloing Tordini punctuated by Smythe strumming the piano's insides and Sorey colouring the air with cymbals, gongs, and chimes.

“Obsidian” sets the scene for “Algid November,” an extremely long trek at thirty-one minutes yet one hardly lacking in incident. Though the musicians' interactions are often subtly rendered, the piece plays like a moment-by-moment document of three complementary intelligences at work. Sorey's behind the kit for parts of it, deftly accenting the musings of his partners and flirting with a regulated pulse, and also away from it for percussion-dominated passages. Similar to “Obsidian,” the action eventually heats up, the loudest moment arriving nineteen minutes in when a cymbal roll obliterates everything in its path. Just as “Flowers for Prashant” is a solo vehicle for Smythe, the album-closing “Contemplating Tranquility” is almost the same for Sorey, whose gongs, cymbals, and chimes provide an evolving backdrop for the pianist to respond to.

At almost eighty minutes, Verisimilitude demands a fair degree of commitment and patience from the listener, especially in the case of “Algid November.” It's rewarded, however, by music that despite the slowness with which it sometimes advances is never less than riveting. Sorey's is clearly an advanced sensibility that has little interest in perpetuating the status quo.

September 2017