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Tyshawn Sorey's year of creative unity

Composer, conductor, multi-instrumentalist and MacArthur "genius" Tyshawn Sorey, whose work this year was central for critic Larry Blumenfeld.
John Rogers
Courtesy of the artist
Composer, conductor, multi-instrumentalist and MacArthur "genius" Tyshawn Sorey, whose work this year was central for critic Larry Blumenfeld.

In March 2020, before the pandemic shut down live jazz in New York, the last performance I heard was a sextet that Tyshawn Sorey led from behind his drum kit at Manhattan's Jazz Gallery. McCoy Tyner, a pianist of towering influence, had died that day; after two hours of original music, Sorey's group slid into Tyner's "Search for Peace," a wordless release of grief I hadn't realized I needed and one last bit of communal uplift before the lockdown.

This past March, as COVID's veil began believably lifting, Sorey was back at the Gallery with a trio (pianist Aaron Diehl and bassist Russell Hall) and a special guest, alto saxophonist Greg Osby. Their music transformed nearly a century of jazz standards into a rush of fresh possibilities. Sorey was serving notice — not just to say "we're back," but that the music had advanced even while we weren't.

It had been waiting for us, as jazz always does, even in normal times. A document culled from that five-night engagement, released last month as The Off-Off Broadway Guide to Synergism, is the next logical step after Sorey's stunning July studio release, Mesmerism — a more pristine yet just as adventurous standards program, in trio with Diehl and bassist Matt Brewer.

All of this was inspired by Osby's 1998 album, Banned in New York, which also recast standards and was, for Sorey, "my soundtrack all through college." Back then Sorey was a trombonist studying classical music, just beginning to play drums in jazz ensembles. As he quickly climbed jazz's ranks, he felt a door slamming on his other ambition — composing for orchestras and chamber-music ensembles. "Since I am a drummer, not a lot of people will take my music seriously," he told me a decade ago. Yet Sorey's recent success as a composer prompted one reviewer to call Mesmerism "a return to jazz." Such irony aside, this past year elevated his standing as a composer yet further.

The clearest evidence was "Monochromatic Light," which premiered in Houston in February to honor both the 50th anniversary of The Rothko Chapel's opening and Morton Feldman's landmark piece for that event, and "Monochromatic Light (Afterlife)," a 90-minute multimedia extension Rothko's work, at Manhattan's Park Avenue Armory in September. In-between, at Spoleto Festival USA in Charleston, S.C. (for a concert series I co-curated) in June, Sorey sat in the third row while the festival's resident orchestra and cellist Seth Parker Woods performed "For Roscoe Mitchell," a dedication to one of several mentors connected to the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM). Then, Sorey stepped up to the podium and conducted his "Autoschediasms," guiding the musicians through "spontaneous composition."

In 2022, seated at his trap set, barely moving, Sorey built stirring drama with the flick of a wrist and a cymbal strike. On the podium, moving his large frame with balletic grace, he coaxed original stories from orchestral players. At the Armory, his music led and held us in a meditative space, channeling ghosts and pain into gorgeous stillness. Over this past year Sorey's ambitions, once in seeming opposition, ascended to a point of unity. Such a development is what the AACM's founders imagined more than a half-century ago. And it's what we need now, to transcend outdated genre-based fundamentalisms, and to turn a year that began as merely bearable into a vision of better things to come.

The year in jazz

  • A return to venues, guided by 'The 7th Hand' – Nate Chinen
  • Julius Rodriguez, a young pianist fusing (all) the music from inside-out – Marcus J. Moor
  • The importance of remembering everything but the musicHarmony Holiday
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    Larry Blumenfeld