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Improvised Silence Amid the Sounds
The New York Times
Ben Ratliff

August 7, 2009

The drummer Tyshawn Sorey confounds easy assumptions, including the assumption that because he is a drummer, his own music should favor the drums, or the assumption that because he plays jazz, all of his music should sound like jazz. His new band is a trio with guitar and bass, but it’s pretty far from any standard model with that setup.

The group played its first gig ever on Wednesday at the Stone; Mr. Sorey is the guest programmer at that East Village club this month. It performed music from its album “Koan” (482 Music), to be released on Sept. 29, and included some of the quietest improvised music I’ve heard, with scores as a suggestion, but improvisation as meat on the bones. The lines between the two were at times almost inaudible.

Cumulatively the set had more guitars than drums, and for one long section Mr. Sorey removed himself from the drum kit and watched the other musicians playing nylon-string guitars.

The evening began with the guitarist Todd Neufeld going back and forth between two chords, letting each decay nearly into silence before pushing forward. After several minutes Mr. Sorey entered with a cymbal crash and started a feather-light, minimal drum pattern with a mallet in one hand and a stick in the other, and Thomas Morgan worked double-bass notes into the pattern.

Carefully dissonant, this was music at the sonic level of the creak of a chair or the shifting of a foot on the floor. It didn’t imitate wakeful human patterns — walking or talking or running — but instead pushed against each note or beat as if it were a stuck door. It fought for its right to do simple things: make resolutions or establish counterpoint.

The set didn’t stay entirely like this. “Correct Truth,” before dipping into whispers, began with start-and-stop rhythm and some consciousness-piercing bursts of cymbal. And “Nocturnal” had moments of more alert and interactive improvised duets between Mr. Sorey and each musician.

There has been music very roughly comparable to this, with one foot in ultra-minimalism and one in the free-jazz performance tradition — like the late-1980s record “News From the Shed,” by a consort of British improvisers, including the saxophonist John Butcher — but Mr. Sorey’s “Koan” music otherwise resists characterization, except as slow and quiet.

External circumstances made this a rough gig for everyone involved. The room, without windows and air-conditioning, became a sauna. Hot breath exhaled from the row behind you felt like cool breeze on your neck. Halfway through, police action began outside the door of the club on Avenue C, involving squad cars and a low-flying helicopter. Accordingly, Mr. Sorey cut the concert short before the album’s final piece, “Embed,” which is too bad; at least on record it’s quite beautiful, the closest this group gets to a jazz ballad. It might have made the band’s character even harder to suss out.

The hassle wasn’t terrible. Especially appropriate for music with philosophical implications, the outside noise functioned as a cosmic reminder. There are no absolutes. There’s no such thing as complete control. There’s no such thing as complete comfort. There’s no such thing as stillness. There’s no such thing as silence.

Back to Koan + album page.
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