Since 2007, when I spoke with Tyshawn Sorey on WKCR and then had a more comprehensive discussion for a DownBeat “Players” piece, the master composer-drummer (and trombonist-pianist) has grown into an international force in creative music, not to mention a Ph.D and a new appointment as Assistant Professor at Wesleyan University. This post, in honor of Sorey’s 37th birthday, contains the two interviews, the “directors’ cut” Players piece that stemmed from the interviews, and an uncut Blindfold Test that he did with me in 2014.
Tyshawn Sorey (Downbeat Players Article):
Last May, drummer Tyshawn Sorey, playing with a quartet led by Muhal Richard Abrams, orchestrated the flow with utter self-assurance and, without really trying to do so, stole the show. After an opening salvo in which Sorey propelled tenor saxophonist Aaron Stewart and bassist Brad Jones with ferocious dialogical rubato, Abrams entered the mix, mimicking and morphing Sorey’s rhythms, then warp-gearing into an intervallically ambitious solo. A powerful crescendoing Abrams-Sorey duo ensued—Sorey hit a freebop groove, placing texturally contrasting accents on the toms and snare, while stating a a crisp 4/4 on the ride cymbal. Abrams gave way, and Sorey wound down to stillness, bowed his cymbals to extract harmonics, stopped, deliberately took apart his crash cymbal and reassembled it so that the concave bottoms faced outward, elicited more harmonics, transformed his body and the floor into percussion instruments, then reestablished a tempo with sturm und drang on the bass and snare drums.
It was only Sorey’s second engagement with Abrams, who thereby joined a distinguished list of speculative composer-bandleaders—among them, Steve Coleman, Vijay Iyer, Dave Douglas, Butch Morris, and Henry Threadgill—eager to deploy the 27-year-old drummer’s unique skill sets.
“He reminded me of Art Tatum right away,” said Coleman, recalling his first formal encounter with Sorey at Manhattan’s Jazz Gallery several years ago. “Very prodigy-like.”
Tatum is not a reference often applied even to the immortal musicians of the timeline, much less a drummer just out of college, so Coleman elaborated.
“Tyshawn is an ultra-quick learner,” he said. “Usually people who read that well don’t have great memories, and vice-versa, but he has both. He’s very well-schooled, but doesn’t have a schooled sound. Very individual player. Few cliches. He knows traditional stuff, but he’s unpredictable. When he came to the band, he was talking about Anthony Braxton and his Tri-Axium writings, the Schillinger system, Muhal, and Stockhausen. He’s the opposite of the Young Lion image, more like a guy who would fit in during the loft scene days, but with much more command of structure than most guys who were psychologically on that thing. He can handle any structure I ever could dream up, nail any rhythm and make it fit, and at the same time get wild on it. Sometimes he goes overboard, like snow rolling down a hill that becomes an avalanche; if a top was spinning on a table, he’d tilt the table to upset the equilibrium. You have to know you’re getting that when you hire him.”
Iyer, who recruited Sorey for his group Fieldwork in 2002, cosigned the Tatum comparison. “He has perfect pitch and seemingly total recall,” he said. “My first session with him, we were trying a new piece with stuff that even I couldn’t really execute. He looked at the page for a half-minute and gave it back. Because he hears at that level, he can be creative in any situation, and he never holds back. He can engage with anybody and spin it all into gold.”
“Steve gives very specific rhythmic instructions, and I try to be creative with that information,” said Sorey, who toured with Coleman last summer in a two-drumset ensemble with fellow wunderkind Marcus Gilmore, and played with Iyer at this year’s Vision Festival. “For example, I’ll use my hands to play a rhythm that was initially assigned to my feet, and then vice-versa. Sometimes I’ll play something completely away from that rhythm, figure it out metrically, and do whatever I want. I’m interested in sound itself, not necessarily as part of any one particular lineage. I want to hear the sound of the rhythm on the drumset and feel its beauty. I want to transcend the instrument. That keeps it interesting to me and the listener—and the musicians.”
Out of Newark, New Jersey, Sorey in his teens was gigging in club bands and units associated with various ministries in the vicinity of his home town when he discovered Abrams’ 1968 Delmark recording Levels and Degrees of Light.
“That turned my world upside-down,” said Sorey, whose polymath influence tree includes John Bonham, Michael Shreve, and Mitch Mitchell; Clyde Stubblefield and Zigaboo Modaliste; Max Roach, Elvin Jones and Tony Williams; Kenny Washington, Jeff Watts, Joey Baron and Jim Black. “I play piano, trombone, and mallet instruments, and the concept of multi-instrumentalism intrigued me. I checked out electronic music and music by Xenakis, Stockhausen, and Cage—through Cage, I eventually stretched to the point where pretty much anything in the room could constitute some sound element. I listened to the sounds Andrew Cyrille experimented with on recordings with Cecil Taylor, also the direction the AACM guys took with form, Coltrane’s later music with Rashied Ali, recordings of Albert Ayler, even the music from Buddhist sermons. I started to understand more about the discipline of improvisation, what it means to have a relationship with the musicians and how this manifests through the music itself.”
These days, Sorey tries “to find my own terms”on those ideas while composing for several ensembles, including a quartet that recorded in May for Firehouse 12.
“I want to keep the audience guessing, and not label me as some free jazz guy, or some textural guy, or some guy who is crazy and can do all these things,” he said. “No matter what style of music I’m playing I want people to say, ‘That’s Tyshawn Sorey.’ That’s where I’m at right now, and where I hope to continue to be.”
Tyshawn Sorey (WKCR, April 26, 2007):
TP: You mentioned that Muhal Richard Abrams’ Levels and Degrees of Light was an important signpost for you, as were other AACM recordings in developing musical ideas and strategies. How did you come to them? Many people your age would have had neither access to nor awareness of that music. I find it interesting that you’re a guy who went through the jazz conservatory system and learned a broad timeline of jazz drumming, and also has these non-idiomatic interests.
SOREY: In fact, a lot of the jazz language I studied myself coming up. Even before high school, I learned how to improvise. This is when I was maybe 12 years old. One of the first tunes I learned actually growing up was Charlie Parker’s “Ornithology”; it’s one of the first things I learned how to improvise on. My teacher exposed me at that time to all kinds of different music—the music of Miles Davis and the music of John Coltrane. Much of my jazz influence comes from them.
TP: This was as a kid in Newark?
TP: Who was this teacher?
SOREY: He passed away some time ago. His name was Michael Cupolo, and he was a jazz-blues type of saxophonist coming up. I guess all of my curiosity spread from there, and checking out a lot of things by Max Roach…because Max Roach was one of the very first people I checked out at all in this music. It intrigued me from the moment I started listening to his music, and listening to Drums Unlimited and things like that. Around the age of 16 or 17, I started becoming curious about other facets of jazz music. It’s funny, because when I was younger, I started out listening to a lot of early jazz—like Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Freddie Keppard, all this type of stuff. So I was into checking out a lot of the experimental music. I wasn’t necessarily interested in focusing on one particular facet of jazz music. So that was one problem I wanted to conquer, and the way to do that was to listen to other musics from other composers and other musicians and other facets of the music that brought my playing level to where it is today.
In checking out Muhal’s recording, that was one of the earliest awakenings for me. That was one of the first experimental records I’ve gotten to check out. It opened the door for me towards expanding my sound source, going beyond just the drumset. I am also a multi-instrumentalist. I play piano as well as trombone and mallet instruments. The concept of multi-instrumentalism is what really intrigued me, and it really made me want to explore that more in my music.
So I became a composer at around 14, and then around the time I checked out Muhal’s record, my whole world turned upside-down basically, and then also through studying out of different books about the AACM and on the AACM, and things which mentioned…
TP: Which books?
SOREY: I don’t remember the names of the books. This was ten years ago.
TP: There aren’t that many.
SOREY: Yes, not that many at all. In fact, I was checking out more music… That’s how I learned more about the AACM, was through checking out liner notes. Checking out a lot of John Coltrane from his later period at this point, things like Ascension and Meditations and Expression and things like that.
TP: The things that Rashied Ali was playing drums on.
SOREY: Right. Checking out mostly that. It got me to become a lot more open to what I was listening to at that time. Because at that time, I was very much wanting to play jazz and then do the experimental thing on the side, or something like that. I was very naive.
TP: You were compartmentalizing the different approaches.
SOREY: Right. I was very naive about that. Now it’s to the point where pretty much everything I do, no matter what genre of music I play, it’s going to show anyway, the nature of what I like to do.
TP: But you do play different genres. You play with musicians who use very specific beat structures that are out of the sphere of mainstream jazz. Vijay Iyer uses extended cycles, and so on. Then you play this rubato, texture, open improvisation as well. Is it all the same to you? Is it a holistic concept? Do you enter different areas of thought process in dealing with the different demands?
SOREY: Never. In fact, in any type of music that I’m playing, no matter who the composer is or anything like that, I always try to put as much of myself into that art as I can. Now, within reason, of course—within the context. But if I’m playing Vijay’s music or Steve Coleman’s music, or if I’m playing in a straight-ahead context, or if I’m doing anything, I generally want to express my individuality as much as possible, and therefore, everything…all of the influence carried out by their work… Therefore, all of that becomes one thing to me. I never try to compartmentalize anything, whenever I’m playing any type of music.
TP: Are you composing from the perspective of a drummer, or sometimes as a drummer and sometimes more theoretically? How does it play out?
SOREY: It’s more theoretical than anything. As I told you, I play piano and trombone. Whenever I’m writing my music, especially now, I’m writing for those instruments and I’m writing for the people who I happen to be working with. I never try to write from a drummer’s perspective, just because for me, the tendency to write with that kind of perspective would be to write something that’s around something that I know how to do already, and I like having the ability to challenge myself as an improviser as a constant challenge. No matter what type of music I play, I strictly try to challenge myself based on whatever I write, whether it’s open or whether it’s metrical or whatever it is. I’m not necessarily writing anything to be difficult or anything to be simple or anything like that. I’m just interested in writing good music that expresses my life experience, and hopefully that will uplift others. That’s my interest. So I don’t really write with the kind of thought process a normal musician probably would. For example, if I were to write something in some kind of meter that I know how to play and I can do all kinds of things on, I’m not particularly interested in pursuing that. I’d rather get more into my own approach and into my playing, and not necessarily into information that I already know about. I don’t really want to do that.
This next track is from my most recent project, Oblique, which ended on January 31, 2007. This concert dates from July 2005 at the now-defunct CB’s Lounge. This band features Loren Stillman on alto saxophone, Brian Klachner on guitar, Carlo DeRosa on bass, Russ Lossing on keyboards, and myself on drums.
TP: In speaking of drum influences, you mentioned Rashied Ali, Elvin Jones, Max Roach. Let’s discuss more how you’ve assimilated drum influences into your sound and what those influences mean to you at this point.
SOREY: Basically, any drummer who is willing to push the envelope and is willing to push himself and his values as an improviser, I am interested in listening to. Elvin and Rashied, of course, are two of those people. Also a great drummer who I have admired for the last 2½-3 years is John McLellan, who plays in a lot of ensembles led by Mat Maneri and different people like that. It’s amazing to me, as much as I hear about him, I don’t ever get to see him perform live. I only got to see him perform live once at the 55 Bar with Ben Gerstein. He’s not a drummer, in my opinion…
TP: Are you mostly interested in drummers who are “not drummers”?
TP: What is a drummer who isn’t a drummer?
SOREY: A drummer who isn’t a drummer, in my opinion, is one who transcends the instrument into something else he wouldn’t have been playing otherwise. As I said, I’m a piano player as well, so whenever I play drums I try to think of another instrument besides a drum or tapping out a rhythm. Again, this is dealing in context rather than just as one thing. I could approach it as a pianist, because I’ve listened to a lot of pianists, a lot of piano players and a lot of piano music coming up. So in checking all that out, it carried over into everything I do now on the drums. Even when I’m playing rhythmic things, I try to think like a pianist, and try to think about something other than the drums. Because if I think about the drums, it’s going to sound a little too…I don’t want to say “normal,” but it will sound very typical. It’s a very typical way of thinking in the music today, and right now we have many younger musicians who are trying to transcend their instruments into something else. That’s what makes their music so fascinating to me, is the fact that they are able to do that. John McClellan, of course, in my opinion, is not really, like, a drummer per se, not one who plays the normal role. For me, I’m not really interested in playing any one particular role at all, no matter what music I do.
TP: Let me ask about some of the musicians you’ve worked with. Vijay Iyer, for example. How did working with those structures affect your thinking? What were the challenges of that gig?
SOREY: Interestingly, I’d been studying South Indian concepts, a lot of different rhythmic concepts based on mathematics and different forms of creating rhythm, before I met Vijay, and getting into the so-called “odd time signatures” and things like that. This was years before I met Vijay.
TP: So grappling with those structures in itself wasn’t such a challenging thing.
SOREY: It wasn’t necessarily a challenge, but it was a challenge on my values as an improviser.
SOREY: For several reasons, one being ensemble interplay, which I think… Just a few weeks ago, I was listening to some early recordings that I did with them before we recorded the album Blood Sutra, some four years ago, and I was listening to things we’d done before then… I felt the need to really mature in my work, and to know what I want out of music, as opposed to just playing the music and sounding killing and this and that. I wasn’t necessarily interested in that…
TP: Come on. You want to sound killing!
SOREY: [LAUGHS] There’s some truth to that. But in fact, that wasn’t really my goal, that wasn’t really my purpose for making music. I was more interested in why am I doing this, why do I want to go in this direction, what brings me to this direction, why am I here? These are the kinds of things I was asking myself.
TP: Working out those issues with music.
SOREY: Exactly. It came from life experience, and that was the answer for me.
TP: So performing in that band helped you along that path. How about performing in conductions with Butch Morris?
SOREY: Butch is actually one of the first people to take me to Europe. I was very honored to have been a part of that. Working with Butch, again, made me question my overall value in music and what I want to get out of music, rather than what I want to present—what I can get out of it for myself. Working with Butch has led me to think very differently as an improviser in having many different vocabularies attached to my playing. It was a growing period for me. At that time, when I was listening to music and when I was playing all of this music, I would play in I guess you would say so-called “free jazz” situations where I felt something was missing from my playing. I felt that there were a lot of strong points that I had within me that needed to be expressed, and the way that started getting expressed was from working with Butch—different vocabularies and different ways of improvising as opposed to just one way all the time. If you hear a saxophone player play a certain figure, you don’t necessarily have to follow that figure. Which now I don’t really like the whole call-and-response thing (or the cat-and-mouse thing) so much now. It was working with Butch, for example, that led me to start thinking about these different ways of improvising.
TP: Now, call-and-response is one of the fundamental vocabulary tropes of jazz.
SOREY: That’s right.
TP: What’s unsatisfactory about it?
SOREY: It’s not so much about what is unsatisfactory, but more or less what I am interested in. I am interested in all kinds of principles in music. Opposition…
TP: So that, or not-that.
TP: How about playing with Steve Coleman, who’s involved in ritual rhythms, where you’d need to extrapolate those ideas onto the drumset. In all three cases, you’re dealing with musicians for whom the interpretation of their music requires a great deal of discipline. Their music can’t be called free jazz…
SOREY: Exactly. Well, for me, all music has discipline. Whether it’s mine or if I’m playing an improvisation or whatever, all music has discipline in it.
Steve Coleman’s music has given me a great deal of discipline. Even working with Dave Douglas has given me a great deal of discipline to work with. I remember having lunch with Dave, and we were discussing my approach to solos and my approach to the band, and he asked me, “What do you want from this? What do you want from the music?” What I want from the music is a further understanding of myself through all the different ways possible. In working with Steve, not only rhythmically has it helped me become more advanced in terms of my drummer’s vocabulary in terms of so-called “independence” and “coordination” and things like that, but it’s also helped me to become interested in the study of other music, and appreciating the sound of whatever it is that he wrote out for the drumset. For example, if he were to give me a part with I-Ching symbols on it, and I were to interpret it, I would like to hear the sound of that now, as opposed to getting away from it and doing my own thing. I really want to hear the sound of it all and to feel the beauty of that, and what that sounds like. That’s one of the key things that’s helped me to focus my vocabulary a lot more on the rhythmic concept.
TP: Do you play other percussion instruments? Do you incorporate them into your drumkit or your sound?
SOREY: No. Usually I incorporate everything else that’s in the room! But I try not to bring any extra parts or anything like that.
TP: No tambourine here, or castanets there…
SOREY: Just a strict, regular type of drumset.
TP: How many different projects are you leading now?
SOREY: Three. Oblique is the one I’ve ended. There’s the Tysawn Sorey Quartet, which will be playing tonight. The Soto Velez Band, which premiered at the venue Clemente Soto Velez; we’ve premiered some work there. Another group is a quintet that I’m right now forming, doing a lot of my early work as a composer as well as later stuff.
TP: How do they differ in content?
SOREY: The quartet focuses on a lot of composed music as well as a lot of free improvisation. The Soto Velez Band is not as compositionally intense, but there’s a lot more improvisation in that than there is in the quartet. The quintet I’m forming right now deals with a lot of things based on chord structures and meters and so on.
TP: Three very different fields of activity.
TP: Two-three years out, how do you see your activity divided up between your own projects, projects with other people, etc.?
SOREY: Ultimately, I’d be interested in doing my own projects exclusively; that is, getting more opportunities to present my work. Which fortunately, at least for this half of the year, I’ve been given a lot of opportunities to present my music. I hope more will come my way, and I hope more of my work as a multifaceted composer and musician becomes recognizable.
[END OF CONVERSATION]
Tyshawn Sorey (May 17, 2007):
TP: I want to start with this concert you played with Muhal. Was it the first time you played with him?
TYSHAWN: Just this past Friday? No.
TP: How long have you been playing with him?
TYSHAWN: This is the second concert we’ve done. I’d say it must have been… I guess we closed the last concert series, and now we’ve started this concert series. So four months or so.
TP: So this year you started playing Muhal’s quartet music. Did Muhal find out about you through Aaron?
TYSHAWN: He found out about me through Aaron k[Stewart]. Like I said in the other interview, Aaron was one of the first people who ever really exposed me to New York, exposed me to the scene. He basically took me in and was like a big brother to me. He introduced me to some of the music of the Art Ensemble of Chicago, which I already knew something about, but he got me even more interested in the music. I met Muhal actually in Venice, when he and Roscoe Mitchell and George Lewis were doing a concert. I met them at the Venice Biennale Festival in 2003 for the first time.
TP: Who you’d known about since high school.
TP: Are there any dynamics to playing with Muhal that were unique, or bring you out of… I realize that you don’t have a lot of habits, and you try hard to break any you might find yourself falling into. You asserted your personality very strongly, but Muhal’s stuff is so strong that it was very ensemble-oriented anyway. He seemed to be orchestrating around you, in a sense. So it was a very interesting concert.
TYSHAWN: I had a lot of fun. It was a great experience for me. There’s something special about playing his music. While he lets the individual be himself in the music, there’s also an element of discipline, as I’ve said, in his music that’s very apparent, and it comes out very strongly just in terms of the players who I play with. I have the utmost respect for people like Aaron and Brad Jones and Muhal. For me, this is something that I was always interested in exploring, in terms of the ensemble interplay and the level of interplay we’ve gotten into. I’ve always been interested in that, and I was glad to be able to fit within it. I was surprised actually that I got the second call from Muhal. The first gig, which was a quintet project with Aaron, Howard Johnson, a bass player named Sadi(?), Muhal and myself… I was actually surprised that I got the second call, because I felt very bad about my contribution. But at the same time, I rethought about it before I got the second call, and I thought it was the perfect environment for me to be in, especially with people whom I really respect on that level.
TP: Over the years you’ve played with a number of the older musicians who’ve been involved in speculative improvising for years and years, but also a lot of your peer group. As a general question, can you talk about the ways in which the older musicians’ attitudes towards music… Do you see any generational difference in the way they think about things?
TYSHAWN: Oh, there’s a big difference. Since I was young… I was 14 years old when I got involved in a group. Up until now, I was always the youngest person in the group. I would sit in with blues bands and so on, with older musicians, and play a lot of jazz group situations and a lot of multi-genre settings close to where I lived. These people really helped me grow, not only on a musical level, but on a personal level as well.
TP: The older musicians. This was in Newark?
TYSHAWN: This was in Newark, Irvington, places like that. But primarily around Newark. I was in high school when this was going on—of course, I was underage. There’s a place close to the center of downtown Newark where they had blues jam sessions and things like that, and I remember walking in one night, just seeing a drummer set up. I had no idea what was going on. I just happened to walk in, and he was setting up some stuff, and he asked me to sit in with this blues band. This was around ‘96-‘97. He asked me to sit in and play, and I played, and he said I sounded good. But he was telling me also some different life experiences that he went through as an artist and also as a person, and these things I guess somehow crept into my music—all of these experiences.
TP: How so?
TYSHAWN: Well, the thought process. It basically altered my thought process, how I can go about pacing… These older musicians took me in and made me realize some aspects of my playing that I could work through discussing life experiences…
TP: Pacing was one of them.
TYSHAWN: Pacing was very important.
TP: By pacing, you mean not throwing out all your ideas every second.
TYSHAWN: Not throwing out all your ideas, yeah. That was my biggest problem, especially when I first came to New York. Because I felt very pressured to please everyone, or I felt very pressured to be “the workingest person in New York City.” I guess after a certain point, I became disinterested in that. I became more interested in drawing back from my experience when I was younger, and applying that to my musical output now.
TP: When did you first start hitting the New York scene?
TYSHAWN: Around 2002.
TP: Was that when you hit with Butch Morris at the Bowery Poetry Workshop?
TYSHAWN: Right. In that period. Before that, I had played with Vijay. Aaron also introduced me to Vijay on February 2, 2002 (or February 4th), where Fieldwork was doing a concert, and Aaron told me about Vijay at that time, and he asked me to come to the concert. So I did, and Vijay introduced himself, and we discussed some things, and Aaron was talking about me to Vijay. I met Butch through Michele Rosewoman, who was also one of the first people I’ve worked with. In fact, the first person who actually took me to Europe. I met Butch through her at a party that we had. I had no idea that Butch would ever call me for everything, and in June, all of a sudden, I received a phone call from Butch asking me to participate in his conduction. Right away, when I walked in there, I didn’t know what to do. I felt like I didn’t know anything about what was going on when I walked in there, and dealing with his conduction vocabulary… It was kind of like a shock factor I was in, because I wasn’t really that experienced in improvising on such a level where I had to be completely disciplined. That was one of the first opportunities I had to do that. It was a hell of an experience. It was five weeks we had in July 2002, and I learned quite a bit. Again, I was the youngest person in the group—still! [LAUGHS]
TP: Let me take you back. Are you born in Newark?
TYSHAWN: I was born in Newark. Born and raised.
TP: You’re from downtown, urban Newark.
TYSHAWN: Yeah. Right in the center.
TP: Did you have musicians in the family?
TP: What things drew you to music and the drums?
TYSHAWN: I didn’t really have musicians in my family. I have a cousin who plays keyboards and stuff like that professionally. But that wasn’t really what drew me to music, because it was always inherent from the getgo. Since I was 2 years old, I knew I wanted to do this. Through my father and different people exposing me to recordings, my uncle exposing me to different jazz recordings… Back then, I was more of a purist. I would only listen to jazz.
TP: Back when? When you were 2?
TYSHAWN: No. When I was maybe 5 or 6, I decided that I only wanted to listen to just jazz and things that were closely related to it.
TP: You were 5 or 6? How did you know about it? Where did you hear it?
TYSHAWN: It was all music to me.
TP: But where…
TYSHAWN: I heard it at home.
TP: Your parents had jazz records.
TYSHAWN: Yes. My father especially. My mother was more of an R&B type person and stuff like that, because that’s what she was exposed to. My father was a very open-minded person about music and different things. Sometimes, even today, I’ll play him recordings of the most extreme, the most abstract stuff, and he’d be very open.
TP: He’s into it.
TYSHAWN: Yes. So he owned a lot of different records from different genres and things like that.
TP: So he’s a jazz fan. He’d probably be a link to some of the people you play with.
TYSHAWN: Right. He had all kinds of different records, all kinds of different genres, and I would listen to all of them. I didn’t really view it as listening to jazz per se, or anything like that. It was all the same to me. But then, when I became I guess around 5 or 6 years old, I decided that I just wanted to stick with one genre, and that was jazz. I don’t know why I did that. I shouldn’t have done that, because I think my vocabulary would be even more broad than it is today given that.
TP: Well, you were 5 or 6.
TYSHAWN: Right. I didn’t know what I was doing! Essentially, my father, some two years later, had taken me to Newark Symphony Hall to meet Dizzy Gillespie at a concert he was doing. I had a couple of records by Dizzy already on my own. My uncle would always take me record-shopping, and he’d let me pick 2 or 3 different records at a time, every time we went record-shopping. So I had two records of Dizzy already, and I was excited, I really wanted to meet him. I had no idea he was still alive. I saw no biography or nothing like that. When I went over there to meet him, Dizzy was one of the sweetest people that I could ever… I had no idea I would ever meet him, first of all.
TP: How did your uncle know him?
TYSHAWN: We didn’t know him at all.
TP: He just brought you back. “Here’s my little boy…”
TYSHAWN: Yeah! And that I was interested in playing music. He let me mess with his valves and mess with the trumpet and stuff like that. Actually, I have a picture at home of him when I was doing that. I was around 7 years old at the time. The concert was great, I remember.
TP: That’s when he had the United Nations Band.
TYSHAWN: Yes, exactly. It was killing. Then a year later, my uncle took me to see two different jazz groups, Miles Davis and the group Hiroshima—around ‘88 or ‘89. I didn’t get to meet Miles, but I was just blown away by everything that was going on at the time. Then I realized how purist I was in my approach to listening to music and things like that.
TP: Were you playing drums by that time?
TYSHAWN: No. I was just banging around on boxes and pots, pans…
TP: Were you playing piano or trombone by then?
TYSHAWN: I was playing piano and trombone by then.
TP: Was that in the schools in Newark?
TYSHAWN: No. That was self-taught. I was largely self-taught in everything I do. The trombone I picked up out of interest. I remember seeing a television commercial or something like that with somebody playing trombone. I couldn’t pick drums in my school because they didn’t have that instrument there. I mean, they had a snare drum or something, but they didn’t really have a full drumkit for me to explore the instrument. So the only thing I did was I said, “Okay, I’ll just pick trombone.” I didn’t want to pick saxophone because I thought it would be very difficult to play.”
TP: As opposed to trombone!
TYSHAWN: As opposed to trombone! Ironically, that’s the hardest… So I took trombone, and took classes and how to read and improved my reading. But mostly what I did at the time was by ear.
TP: Trombone and piano. You’d listen to records and try to play along…
TYSHAWN: Yeah, that kind of thing.
TP: When did you start playing drums?
TYSHAWN: I started playing a real drumset (I’ll put it that way) by the time I was 14 or 15.
TP: Before that were you playing rhythms?
TYSHAWN: I was just playing rhythms and tapping with my hands and stuff. I kind of intuitively had an idea on how to play the instrument, because I would watch videos of people doing it. So I had an intuitive idea on how the instrument worked. I just didn’t have much idea about coordination and technique and all that stuff.
TP: I’m sure you had good time.
TYSHAWN: Time was pretty decent. I could keep a nice groove and things like that. But until that I point, I would borrow drumsets, or I would practice like at church, or wherever I had the opportunity to get on a drumset.
TP: Was church a place where you could play?
TYSHAWN: Not necessarily. I wasn’t even part of the ministry. For whatever reason, they wouldn’t allow me to play with the ministry.
TP: You listened to a lot of records, so you probably know a lot more than most people who were 14 in 1994 about the music’s history and who the personalities are. Were there particular drummers at that point who were interesting to you?
TYSHAWN: Well, several different genres. Again, it came out of a more broad perspective, as opposed to jazz drummers or something like that. But I listened to people like Mitch Mitchell or John Bonham, and then I would listen to Elvin and Tony, then I would listen to John Robinson or somebody… All kinds of different people from different genres, and some international music as well—a lot of Spanish music, some folkloric Cuban music.
TP: Were you the type of kid who would hear Tony Williams with Miles and you’d try to break down what Tony was doing…
TP: You would try to emulate these guys.
TYSHAWN: Try to emulate these guys.
TP: Who were the main guys you’d try to emulate? You’d use trial and error, I assume, because there wasn’t youtube at the time.
TYSHAWN: Right! It all started by checking out the movie Woodstock and listening to Carlos Santana’s group play, and Michael Shreve, who back then was 17 or 18 years old, and watching him take a solo… Sometimes I would try to copy things from there. I also listened to a lot of Max Roach, who at the time really drew me to the music. When I was 2 years old, Max Roach was one of the first people I listened to.
TP: You heard him at 2 and you can remember it.
TYSHAWN: Yes. My father told me. We had Charlie Parker records all over the world. So we had a lot of stuff. I still have those records, too. That’s how I remember. Elvin Jones I’ve checked out a bunch. He’s the reason why I’m still playing today.
TYSHAWN: Because of what he brings to the music and the creative element that he has. His improvisation. Him and Tony both, in terms of their approach to improvisation and what it means to really explore oneself. Tony Williams I checked out. There was no way I could play any of that information, but I’ve checked it out anyway and I’ve tried to dissect as much of it as I could through transcription and through literally copying things that they’ve done—tuning drums like them, sitting just like them, similar hand techniques that they use. Literally trying to emulate what they’ve done.
TP: But you seem always… Well, maybe it’s from being exposed to all this. But your tastes are very broad. I don’t know if that’s something to address or not.
TYSHAWN: Oh, yeah. Definitely it is.
TP: Do you think that’s a generational thing?
TYSHAWN: It could be a generational thing. A lot of the people in my age area…I mean, they were only interested in hip-hop, and that’s all they would listen to. Since I was 6 years old and going to the barber shop with my dad, he would take me to get my hair cut… Going to the barber shop has always been an experience I looked forward to. Because the barber who cut my hair owned all of these recordings, all of these R&B artists and things like that. He also helped expose me to different things, checking out people like Millie Jackson, James Brown, Otis Redding, Sam Cooke, and he would give me all of these 45s every time I would come to the barber shop, and I’d go home and listen to them all night.
TP: You’re the second guy I talked to in a last couple of weeks who said that they had this sort of learning experience at the barber shop. But it sounds like you got your playing together pretty quick. Then you started playing neighborhood gigs type of thing…
TYSHAWN: I pretty much came out of the church, I guess you could say. Playing in the church. I played in several different churches. As I said, I couldn’t play in my home church ministry, but I have played as part of other ministries before, getting back to where my cousin, who plays keyboards professionally… He actually got me hooked up with those opportunities to play in those churches.
TP: These are churches in Newark and the surrounding…
TP: What sort of music? Shuffle rhythm type music?
TYSHAWN: Yeah, more that kind of stuff, or gospel music that has an R&B edge to it. That kind of stuff. I grew up doing that.
TP: That must have been good training as far as time and pacing and keeping people interested…
TYSHAWN: It was a wonderful experience. I’ll never forget, we were playing the church service in Montclair, it was an evening service, and there was a fill that I tried to do that sounded…as I remember now, it’s very advanced. You don’t really hear a lot of gospel drummers play these type of fills or anything. I don’t know exactly how to describe it, but I did do a lot of subdivisions of beats and things like that while I played. He turned and looked at me and he said, “Don’t do that.” That was one of the first experiences I had in terms of learning discipline and how to really lock in and really groove with people, and how to make people feel while I’m playing the music.
TP: It doesn’t seem there are a whole lot of gigs that can help you swing as much as doing a church gig when you’re 14-15-16 years old.
TYSHAWN: Right. Although the local band that I participated in, the first group, we played a lot of jazz tunes. We played stuff by Horace Silver. We played things by…
TP: In church?
TYSHAWN: No, this is completely different. We played things by Marvin Gaye, we played stuff by Smokey Robinson, we’d play something by… There was just all kinds of different music we did, and I’m thankful to have had that experience, because all of that is pretty much a part of what I do.
TP: During those years, were you aware that the newer jazz tradition, James Moody and Wayne Shorter and Sarah Vaughan and Larry Young and Woody Shaw and Hank Mobley and all that… I know WBGO was very active during those years, so among other things, it would have helped to keep that consciousness going. But I’m wondering if that was important to you as a young guy.
TYSHAWN: It was. In fact, I listened a lot more to WKCR than I did to WBGO. A lot of what WBGO was playing…it sounded like they were playing the same music a lot, and I looked for a different source to get to music, and I found WKCR. On that station, you hear a lot of Charlie Parker a lot of stuff that you can’t get out here these days. There was one time when I would get a whole bunch of blank tapes and record stuff from WKCR. I used to have this collection of cassette tapes where I would pull stuff from the radio program—like the delta blues programs they used to have, a lot of early jazz programs, Charlie Parker programs—and document it. I’ve done a lot of documentation. I did a lot of CD shopping, record shopping, and things like that during that period. But WKCR I would say was and still is my main source for getting the information I’m interested in.
TP: But the reason I was mentioning WBGO is the role it plays in the cultural infrastructure of Newark, and if they had any impact in your consciousness of the musicians I mentioned and the history of Newark jazz music. Or Savoy Records, or Amiri Baraka…
TYSHAWN: I learned a lot about my culture in Newark while listening to WBGO as well. WKCR wasn’t exactly my only source, but it was my main source of information. Listening to WBGO helped me to understand the history of Newark, and what musicians came out of there, and what they felt for the music. I had no idea Wayne Shorter was from Newark until I graduated high school. He went to my alma mater, Arts High School. Sarah went there, so did Woody Shaw, Ike Quebec, some other people. Then they had Savoy Records, which wasn’t too far from where I lived, right in downtown Newark. So I knew about jazz heritage in Newark, and then when I checked out WKCR I learned about the New York scene and what was going on here.
TP: As you say, everybody was into hip-hop. Were you able to get along with your peer group, or were you sort of an outcast type of…
TYSHAWN: No! I was very much an outcast. In fact, the bus attendant who… I always took the bus to school until I was around 11 or 12 years old. I needed to have music around me all the time, or else… It was a big thing for me. I was listening to so much music at that point, to the point that people looked at me as pretty weird. I was listening to the country music that WKCR would play at 6-7 o’clock in the morning on the weekends, and I would record that stuff, and then I’d bring it with me. I had a tape recorder with speakers and I had a headset. My bus attendant said, “You can’t get on the bus with this music.” “I enjoy it, I like it.” It got the point where she gave me a break and said, “All right, you can listen to it, but just put the headset on.” So I was listening to all kinds of music on the bus, that I’d taped from the nights before. So I was very much a person who was looked at as very strange, number one, for listening to country music on a school bus in front of a bunch of hip-hop kids, you know what I mean… I guess I was always viewed as different in school because of the music I checked out and what my interests were.
TP: Lucky for you that you had the church community, with people who would accept you for what you are.
TP: When did the notion of speculative improvising take hold, taking it outside, the area you find yourself in… You went to William Patterson, and you couldn’t really be playing that way when James Williams was teaching a class, even if James was tight with Joe McPhee. Or Harold Mabern… If you were playing with them, you had to play…
TYSHAWN: Right. Very straight-ahead.
TP: I’m sure you could hold down that type of gig if such a thing came along.
TP: Now, most people your age… This is a different time than the ‘60s. It’s hard to live the starving artist life because things are just too expensive. There’s no safety net. You can’t live in a cold water flat in the East Village for $100 a month. That pragmatism is one reason why people…
TYSHAWN: Shy away.
TP: …shy away from that. What was moving you in that direction?
TYSHAWN: It’s when I started listening to Coltrane’s music, and then later on the music of Jackie McLean. Some other people also. People like Elmo Hope, Thelonious Monk, people like that. I investigated more into what they were doing, and saw that it was very individualistic at the time they came up. That’s when my attention to Muhal Richard Abrams came about. Because I had no idea who this man was. I was just reading a book about what transpired during the ‘60s, and Muhal’s name was in the book. I said, “Who is that?” I tried to find out who he is. I couldn’t find Levels and Degrees of Light at all. I looked all over for that record, and I could not find it for a long time until I saw a CD copy of it, and then I picked it up and checked it out. I said, “Whoa, what are these guys…”
TP: So you dug that right away?
TP: Can you recall what you dug about it? You weren’t playing anything in that vibe at the time, were you?
TYSHAWN: No. What I dug was the realization and understanding of form on such a level where it was totally advanced from what was going on at that time. Me, myself, through listening to Wayne Shorter and people like that, and seeing how many different ways form can take, the standard song form and things like that, looking at all these different ways of defining the form of a song and things like that, and I’m seeing what the AACM guys are doing, and they’re taking it in a completely different direction than what I’d known. So what captivated me most was how they demonstrated that.
TP: Describe from your perspective what it is they did that was outside the norm.
TYSHAWN: Well, the improvisation… They were improvising, and it felt very natural to me.
TP: But when you say it was different from what you’d known, do you mean different from the Ascension and Interstellar Space type of thing, or do you mean…
TYSHAWN: It was different from that, in the way that they were playing with each other. It didn’t sound like a typical jazz ensemble at all. Even though you have people who play those instruments, saxophones and piano, it still was very different for me. There would be points where the piano didn’t play, sometimes there would be one or two instruments playing, and then there would be another point where the whole group is playing, and then another… That’s what really sparked the interest further than that. Because I didn’t understand what was going on at the time, but as I got more into the music, especially of the AACM, I started to understand more about the discipline of improvisation and about what it means to have a relationship, not only musically but also personally, with the musicians and how it manifests through the music itself.
TP: Was this a solitary pursuit during that time? Did you find people with whom you could start working on these ideas?
TYSHAWN: No. Not at all..
TP: This was before you went to college.
TYSHAWN: This was in high school.
TP: What happened in college? Was that a good experience for you?
TYSHAWN: In college I was very much still a straight-ahead player, but I would also have the ability to be able to play so-called “free forms” of music and things like that. My composition also had advanced by that point. My forms became more “weird.” They became more interesting. People would say, “Yeah, you’re drawing a lot from Wayne Shorter and Duke Ellington” and so on, but then over time in college, it progressed into a thing where it is right now, to a point where I’m basically trying to find my own terms when it comes writing music or investigation of material.
TP: Who were your main instructors at William Patterson?
TYSHAWN: John Riley, a great big band drummer and a great teacher. I asked him several questions about many different traditional musics and forms of jazz, and he was very receptive to discussing those things with me. I thank him for that. Bill Goodwin. Kevin Norton. I studied with them over my whole course there.
TP: I’d imagine the impact of the latter two was less on drum techniques than helping you find your way conceptually.
TYSHAWN: Exactly. With Kevin it was that way. We be in a situation in our lesson where we’d play together, he’d play vibraphone and I’d play drums. After we were done playing, he’d always ask me, “What were you thinking about during this? Were you thinking compositionally? Were you thinking the opposite of what I was doing? Were you thinking the same texturally as what I was doing?” He made me start thinking more about these things, which drew me back to my first listening to Muhal’s record. That’s the thing that I needed to understand, was all these ways of improvisation that do not necessarily fall into this confined state where everybody follows each other. It really made me start to think differently about how I would play with other musicians, whether it’s duo or large group. It made me think of all these things when it came to free playing or more conceptual type stuff.
TP: I assume you started gigging in this regard once you were in college.
TYSHAWN: Once I was in college, yeah, I started gigging more. I started doing a lot of club dates where we played bebop standards and that type of stuff. I did a lot of that actually for about 3 years.
TP: When you play bebop, who do you sound like?
TYSHAWN: Myself still, but… I guess it’s like a cross between Elvin, Max and myself, all kind of mixed in together, in that I do a lot of rhythmic variation in my solos, a lot of different subdivisions. I still throw that in sometimes, which was my element…
TP: You swung a little with Muhal. Got out of it pretty quick, though.
TYSHAWN: Definitely. I love doing those kind of dates. I wish I could do it more often, but I’m known for I guess doing some of the most extreme…
TP: Well, you are known as a very extreme drummer. Do you feel like you’re being…
TYSHAWN: I feel like I’m being pigeonholed, in a sense. Not a lot of people know I can do that, except for close friends or people who actually have done club dates with me. For example, in the next month I’ll be going out to D.C., to Twins Jazz Club, which is a very straight-ahead type of place, and I’ll be playing 3 club dates there—2 with a saxophone player named Anthony Nelson, and another who I’m waiting to hear from. But the two gigs I’m doing with Anthony are confirmed. He’s very much a straight-ahead bebop type player, and we’ve been working together for the last close to ten years.
TP: So that’s satisfying for you, too.
TYSHAWN: Oh, yeah. To be able to do that…
TP: You haven’t turned your… Well, again, maybe that’s a generational thing, too. For a lot of the older players, the decision not to play that way was very firm – “I’m NOT going to play like that” at all costs. In 2001 I covered a workshop Cecil Taylor did at Turtle Bay Music School, and a lot of the players could play bebop or they could play… Maybe it’s because of music schools, or the Internet…
TYSHAWN: Well, there’s so much more access now than there was when I grew up, to the point where musicians are becoming a lot more proficient very quickly. It’s now at the point where we have the Internet, we have youtube, we have line-wire, all these different things we’re drawing information from. That’s why I think the musicians are more proficient now.
TP: Aaron Stewart was the guy who brought you into the NY scene. Did you meet him at William Patterson? How did it happen?
TYSHAWN: It’s an interesting story. This guitar player… The first time I came to New York and played in front of real professional musicians…not to say that Mr. Nelson wasn’t a professional at the time… But I say that because people with the profile of Gene Jackson, Mark Helias, Michele Rosewoman, Steve Wilson… In college, I went to a concert of there. This was after 9/11. I said, “I’m not going to go to New York for at least a year.” I was terrified at what happened. But around November, they were doing a concert at the Up Over Jazz Café. It was Mark Shim… I’d known Michele for three years at that point; she’d been teaching at Montclair State University Summer Jazz Camp. She wrote me an email saying, “I’d like to see how you sound these days, because I haven’t heard you in a while; won’t you come down to Up Over and check out the concert.” So I went there to check out the concert, but when I got in the door I didn’t expect that she was going to ask me to sit in. When I walked in the door, she said, “I’m going to have you play on a couple of things.” I was scared. I didn’t want to embarrass myself in front of people like Gene Jackson, who I think is one of the greatest drummers out here today. I wanted to make sure I was ready. She caught me totally off-guard. So I went to the stage, and we played a couple of tunes. Mark Helias. Mark Shim was on the gig, and he found out about me through her. After the set was over, after I’d played the tunes with them, he said, “Man, you should be out here working right now. You’re very talented…” and this and that… “and here’s my phone number,” and this-and-that. Then he gave Jonathan Kreisberg, the guitar player, my telephone number, and I worked with him on this gig with Shim. Then Shim arranged… There was a rehearsal with Kreisberg, and Shim said, “Can you stay a little later.” I said, “Sure, I can stay…” I didn’t think I was going to stay in New York. But I said, “Okay, I’ll stay.” Shim said, “I have a friend coming over,” and that was Aaron. This was in 2001.
TP: You did this tour with Butch and then you played with Vijay… Other gigs, too. Michelle was into working with a lot of diasporic and Afro-Cuban rhythms. You were incorporating those, too?
TYSHAWN: Yes. Also working with her helped me to understand what it means to actually play that material, and how it relates to several different religions. I didn’t know anything about some of these African religions or the Yoruba music…the ritual music.
TP: After Muhal’s gig the other night, I went to Vijay’s hit with Marcus Gilmore, and Vijay said, “I wish I’d gone to see that; what did Tyshawn do?”
TYSHAWN: [LOUD LAUGH]
TP: I said, “It was very focused, very compositional.” I mentioned that you’d taken things apart, put them back together, playing them… He said that one time you played with him, you’d actually hit the drum so hard that you punctured the head.
TYSHAWN: [LAUGHS] Right.
TP: I’d like you to talk about putting your individuality into all those different contexts.
TYSHAWN: I try to work within whatever the context is. Working with Muhal, like I said, allows me to be myself within the context of what he does and within the context of his music. He’s a very open person. It’s very rare to play with people like him, and to be around someone like him. On the other hand, to play with someone like Anthony Nelson or to play at the jam sessions at Cleopatra’s Needle is completely different. But I like to apply some aspect of my individuality into whatever music I’m doing, and I try to play within the context of the song but I also try to think to myself, “what is the listener going to gather?” I don’t want to sound like any one person. For example, if I were to play some rock tune or something like that, I don’t want somebody to tell me, “Well, you sound like Vinnie Colaiuta” or “You sound like this or that.” I don’t want that to happen. If they heard a recording and they didn’t see a concert or anything, l want them to be able to say, “That’s Tyshawn Sorey playing.” I want that individuality to come through in whatever I’m playing.
TP: So you don’t necessarily have to deconstruct the kit on a bebop gig to claim your individual sound.
TYSHAWN: Not at all.
TP: For your own music, is any one component more… You seem very interested in textural exploration of the kit, and trying to put together compositionally as many sounds as you can either within metric flow or not. Is that just one aspect of your creative individual interests? Does it also interest you to do rhythmic subdivisions, or to swing or not-swing…
TYSHAWN: Oh, yeah.
TP: Would you say that now you’re in a phase of your exploration?
TYSHAWN: I feel like that, yes. As I said, the exploration phase never stops. It’s never apparent.
TP: Particularly the textural things you’re doing.
TYSHAWN: Right now, it’s just as important to me to discover textures on the instruments that I know already and some I do not know already. It’s better for me to do that than just go wild on the drumkit for an hour. Because I’m missing the beauty of everything that could happen, or missing the beauty of possibility—or lack of it, in some cases. But I feel like this is a very important phase for me, because now it helps me to discover my individuality a lot more than I was used to. I’m interested in sound as itself; not necessarily as part of any one particular lineage, but I’m interested in the sound of the instrument itself. For me, it’s about the instrument and it’s about what you can do to enhance the music on such a level where it doesn’t follow the cliches that are involved in improvisation.
Music for me is all the same. I like to get involved with my instrument as much as possible, to the point where, like I said, I’m going to keep the audience guessing, and not label me as some free jazz guy or some textural guy or some guy who is crazy and he can do all of these things… I don’t want to be labeled as such. I want people to be able to identify me no matter what style of music I’m playing. That’s where I’m at right now, and where I hope to continue to be.
TP: What sort of gigs would you like to be doing that you’re not doing now?
TYSHAWN: A hip-hop gig, or some straight-ahead type situation—but where I could still express myself, of course. Basically, everything that became part of my musical makeup, which is pretty much all the music I’ve listened to. Classical music, classical contemporary music, R&B, Funk, jazz, avant-garde, experimental music, electronic music. Everything. I’d like to be part of all of it.
TP: You were speaking of iconic drummers. But for people your age, people like Tain and Lewis Nash were also important. Were you paying attention to any of them?
TYSHAWN: Kenny Washington especially. I don’t know if we discussed this on WKCR, but I took part of NJPAC’s Jazz for Teens program, and he was the drum teacher there, and he really nailed me! It was some of the most profound teaching I’ve ever experienced. He was telling me to check out this, check out that, gave me a list of things I needed to check out and listen to. He was actually one of the people I started listening to when I was as young as 9 years old.
TP: He was still with Flanagan then.
TYSHAWN: Right. There’s a record on Telarc, To Bird With Love, with him and Lewis Nash, and I was really floored with their technical brilliance, and how disciplined they were in playing the music, and how much life they brought into it.
TP: Serious bebop playing.
TYSHAWN: Yeah. For me, that stuff was killing. It’s really great. I’ve listened to Tain, of course. Before I left high school, I was checking out a lot of Tain. I was interested in Branford’s music, and I heard about the direction that music started to take. There were days when I tried to emulate him as well in college. I set up my drums like him, and I would have almost the same exact cymbal setup he would have, and all this stuff. I would try to emulate as much stuff as I’ve checked out as possible. I was listening to people like Jim Black at the time, and I tried to emulate his style. I tried to do Joey Baron. I’ve checked out a lot of those people as well.
TP: What’s your kit like? Your setup.
TYSHAWN: I use a regular traditional four-piece setup that most jazz drummers use. A flat ride cymbal on my left, ride cymbal on my right, crash cymbal on my far right, and a pair of hi-hats. That’s all I use. Almost every gig I do, that’s it.
TP: Are you particular about the tuning?
TYSHAWN: I’m very particular about my tuning, yes. I mean to say, I don’t want anything to sound like what someone else’s tuning could be like. But at the same time, you can’t avoid that, because there are so many people out here. I try to tune my drums as articulately as possible while sustaining kind of a low pitch. So I try to have some kind of body to the sound that I’m producing, even though there’s a lot of articulation there as well.
Aaron pretty much is the source of a lot of what I do today. The first Jazz Gallery concert I ever did was with Vijay, and he came to the first night, and my drums were tuned just the way I normally tune them, sort of how Tain would tune his drums, a very dark, round kind of sound. Aaron came up to me and said, “You sounded fine; I can hear the cymbals, but I can’t really hear the articulation of the drums, and I can’t hear a lot of what your ideas are. The next day I went personally out to Sam Ash Music in Paramus, New Jersey (they didn’t have one in my area at the time, though now they do), and bought a bunch of drum heads, some drum sticks, some drum keys, all kinds of stuff that I would never have done otherwise. I bought all this new stuff, and I got to the Jazz Gallery around 5:30 or 6 the next night, took everything apart and retuned it, cranked things up a little more, and everything was very bright-sounding, and everything all of a sudden was more articulate. The night of that concert, it seemed my ideas came out so much better than it did the first night. I even set up differently. I set my cymbals up differently. I sat differently. I had to use a different hand technique because of the way I set everything up. I could see that my ideas were flowing so much better, and became a lot more clearer. Even Vijay noticed that on the second concert. He said, “Did you fix your drumset, or did you change the way you hit it?” I said, “Yeah. Completely!” A complete change.
TP: You’re going to Europe with Steve Coleman in a month or so. He’s extremely specific about rhythm, about certain metrical things. Have you found it a very rewarding experience?
TYSHAWN: It was a very rewarding experience, in that I can appreciate the beauty of whatever it is he writes. But again, like with Muhal, he lets me express myself as an individual within the context of whatever is going on. For example, the way Steve looks at music is very different than the way I used to look at it—which is still kind of the same. Whenever I play his music, he has very specific instructions regarding what rhythms I should play. Sometimes I try to figure out what I can do to make it creative and to be creative with that specific information. I’ll change the relationship of whatever rhythms he would give me between my hands and feet; play one rhythm that was on my feet to my hands, and then vice-versa. Sometimes I’ll play something that’s completely away from it, and try to metrically figure out what it actually is, and I’ll just play that and just play myself, whatever I want to. It’s a great experience for me to be as creative as possible with very specific information like that.
But I didn’t want it to sound too rigid either. I don’t want it to sound like, “Well, this is what the groove is.” I want to keep it interesting for myself and for the listener—and for the musicians.
TP: You said that you think people tend to pigeonhole, and people who think historically might think of you as a modern-day Sunny Murray or Rashied or Andrew and so on, and there are certainly elements there.
TYSHAWN: That’s right.
TP: Have those drummers given you any feedback as well?
TYSHAWN: I ran into Andrew last week at the New School, and we talked for a bit. I’m interested in studying with him. I’m going to try to get a couple of lessons to even go further beyond what I have going now. We actually met in Ulrichsberg, Austria, some two years ago. Fieldwork played and Marilyn Crispell, Henry Grimes, and Andrew were playing the next night. I went to that concert, and it was the first time I’d seen Andrew in a live performance setting. I remember Andrew taking this solo, he just took the snare drum off the stand and was doing things with the drum with his feet, and creating different rhythmic things using that. His whole solo was based on that, and then he started using the whole kit and doing a bunch of different stuff with that. The solo must have been 5 or 10 minutes. After he was done, I was just in tears, because I couldn’t believe how much sound he was able to get out of a traditional setup—like I have. He didn’t have a bunch of bells or gongs or toys or none of that. He had sticks…
TP: He used to play the wall, and his chest…
TYSHAWN: He was playing his face, too, I remember!
TP: How long have you been taking the kit apart?
TYSHAWN: Five-six years.
TP: Playing the wall, these dramatic textural contrasts you like to do…
TYSHAWN: This is when I was checking out a lot of electronic music and music by classical contemporary composers like Xenakis, Stockhausen, Cage… Actually, John Cage interested me more into stretching my sound source, to the point where it pretty much became that anything in the room could constitute some sound element. I wasn’t thinking like that at the time, but when I started checking that stuff out, it really opened up my whole sound world. Also checking out Cyrille’s recordings with Cecil Taylor, and listening to the sounds he would experiment with. Also the AACM guys. When I was listening to the AACM, I wanted to get into this whole sound world that I didn’t know about. Because of my curiosity, I wanted to get into that. That’s when I started checking out Cecil Taylor, and when I started checking out Coltrane’s later music with Rashied, and recordings of Albert Ayler, and then listening to other music as well. Like, sometimes, listening to Buddhist sermons, which might have music in it as well.
TP: Do you think long term? Do you think of what you’d like to be doing when you’re 35? Where you’d like your music, your career to be?
TYSHAWN: I don’t see it as a goal that you reach at a certain point or a goal that you reach at the end. It’s more about the search for myself dealing with whatever sound world I’m interested in. It’s more about that than the actual finding of something. I don’t want to put any particular pressure on myself to fulfill a certain goal, but I can only say that wherever my career takes me is where I’ll be happy, because I’ll get to still be myself. If I’m successful at that, that’s great; if I’m not as successful as the next person, then that’s also fine. But I know within myself that I’m doing what I want to do.
TP: Apart from music, you’re teaching?
TYSHAWN: I’m teaching, yes, at the New School—private students. I learn a lot from them as well. It’s been a special experience. A lot of students I taught there… For me, it’s not really about, “Okay, I’m going to give you lessons and that’s it.” I try to develop relationships with them and try to make sure that they are following the path they want to go. I’m interested in that as well, and I’m the type of person who puts that kind of thing on myself. I tell all my students I don’t want them to feel pigeonholed, like they’re a rock guy or they’re a jazz guy or they’re a free guy. I think they’re a musician, and that’s all that matters really. Everybody is different. It’s will just have to come out in whatever music you play.
[END OF CONVERSATION]
Tyshawn Sorey (BFT—Final Edit):
Steve Coleman, who does not dispense compliments lightly, once compared Tyshawn Sorey’s drumkit and percussion skills to the legendary mega-virtuoso pianist Art Tatum. But for the 34-year drummer-trombonist-pianist-composer, who recently released his fourth album, Alloy [Pi], it’s less about chops than about “feeling the beauty of the sound of rhythm on the drumset, rather than any one particular lineage.”
Wadada Leo Smith Great Lakes Quartet
“Lake Ontario” (The Great Lakes Suites, TUM, 2014) (Smith, trumpet; Henry Threadgill, flute and bass flute; John Lindberg, bass; Jack DeJohnette, drums)
Barry Altschul has such a distinctive sound, with the flat ride cymbal and tightly tuned drum setup. It’s not him? I like the economical setup, that he’s dealing in the music so honestly without a lot of extended accessories. I’m thinking Pheeroan Aklaff, too, with that big sound, which I gravitate to. The composition was beautifully played and well-executed; no matter how loud the solo, the drummer played with tremendous clarity and stayed out of the way, never bombastic. A giving way of playing, which I hear in many older drummers. 5 stars.
Steve Wilson-Lewis Nash Duo
“Jitterbug Waltz” (Duologue, MCGJazz, 2014) (Nash, drums; Wilson, soprano saxophone)
The time feels internalized, which I especially like. It’s clear that the drummer is playing in 3/4, but it’s more implied than heard. I especially appreciate that he’s keeping time with the entire drumkit. The drums are clean, articulate, very well-tuned, resonant. The touch is light, but full. He’s not interested in playing a whole bunch of drums; he’s playing for the song. It reminds me of Lewis Nash. I’ve listened to him extensively. One of our most valuable drummers. He has such control and mastery; he can play anything and still be there. 5 stars is not enough.
“The Kiss (for Maurice Ravel)” (Play The Music of Steve Lacy, Vol. 3: Live, Driff, 2014) (Han Bennink, drums; Jorrit Dijkstra, lyricon; Mary Oliver, violin; Jason Roebke, bass; Pandelis Karayorgis, piano; Jeb Bishop, trombone)
I’m thinking of things like Mario Davidovsky’s Synchronisms and Milton Babbitt’s works with instruments and electronics behaving together. It’s gorgeous—violin, synthesizer and bass. The drummer reminds me of Han Bennink. Is this ICP? No? Wolter Wierbos on trombone? Han’s playing is so dynamic and powerful, and his touch is identifiable—his brushwork and pressure techniques he applies to the snare. He incorporates everything into the music. I appreciate hearing a drummer in his seventies who still takes so many chances, is open to fostering collaborative relationships, whose goal is to bring out the best in a lot of musicians. There are times when what he does can be a little much for me, but that’s my problem. It’s not his. 5 stars.
Paul Lytton-Agustí Fernández-Barry Guy
“In Praise Of Shadows” (Topos, Maya, 2007) (Fernández, piano; Guy, bass; Lytton, drums)
Agusti Fernández, Barry Guy and Paul Lytton, who is at the forefront of contemporary drumming today. He’s immediately identifiable. A lot of what he does reminds me of electronics. He gets such a clear, articulate sound, while doing many things in a non-traditional way. He sounds like a composer who is thinking of numerous sonic possibilities within the drumkit by doing different things with his hands or mounting found objects, like little cymbals that dampen the sound of the drum (and at the same time create a higher pitch attack so that you hear a drier sound), or using brushes to get crackling sounds. Everyone moved together in terms of density, but also listened together and maximized the possibilities in each respective instrument. 5 stars is not enough.
“Past Lives” (Blueprints of Jazz, Vol. 1, Talking House, 2006) (Clark, drums; Donald Harrison, alto saxophone; Christian Scott, trumpet; Jed Levy, tenor saxophone; Christian McBride, bass)
The drums are mixed so high, it’s obvious that the drummer led the session. Bright sound. I dig that. Beautiful song. The drummer was highly active, but was also thinking compositionally, playing differently behind each soloist while maintaining the high energy and forward motion and using the entire drumkit. The tempo didn’t fluctuate one bit. 5 stars.
Albert “Tootie” Heath
“It Should Have Happened A Long Time Ago” (#10) (Tootie’s Tempo, Sunnyside, 2013) (Heath, drums; Ethan Iverson, piano; Ben Street, bass)
The drums are flowing, developing its own space even before the piano and bass develop all the melodic stuff—as though the two things are developing at once. I like that he barely used any cymbals. You get a sense he’s working with a language in playing the groove, which feels very natural, and the way he accents the pattern is dynamic. I also like the tuning—very melodic, not drowning anything out. 5 stars. [after] That rendition conveyed the sense of flow in Paul Motian’s music.
“It’s Now” (Rose: Doug Hammond Tentet Live, Idibib, 2011) (Hammond, drums; Dwight Adams, trumpet; Wendell Harrison, clarinet; Stéphane Payen, Román Filiú, alto saxophone; Jean Toussaint, tenor saxophone; Dick Griffin, trombone; Kirk Lightsey, piano; Aaron James, bass)
Hard to guess. It’s someone from an older generation, playing an accompanying role, not getting in the way of the soloists, who are strong. Is it the drummer’s composition? There’s a high degree of counterpoint in certain places, which is beautiful. It reminds me of Max Roach’s writing. I like the use of cowbell and toms, broken up in a very nice groove. I hear it not just as a cool pattern, but a melody, a composed part that serves as an axis, the glue that holds it all together. 5 stars for the composition and 5 the drumming. [after] Doug Hammond is one of my main influences. I know his earlier things with Abdul Wadud and Steve Coleman where he’d compose grooves as a way of determining form, not his writing for larger groups. He’s responsible for much of what’s happening in drumming today.