Rookies of the Year

Tyshawn Sorey's provocations lead a pack of notable 2007 debuts

Bill James is father to that new breed of baseball wonks for whom a walk is as exciting as a home run (we have him to blame for Steve Garvey and Jim Rice not being in the Hall of Fame). Regardless, he might be the smartest, most engaging baseball writer ever. Back in the '80s, he devised a method of forecasting an active batter's final career stats based on "similarity scores"—identifying physically similar former players who had comparable numbers at the same age, and extrapolating from there. As James would be the first to admit, the system isn't foolproof: Ruben Sierra was destined to be the next Roberto Clemente, as I recall. But it's fun to fool around with, and I've always wanted to apply it to jazz.

Even though drummer Tyshawn Sorey is already in his late twenties, the closest match for the two-disc That/Not —his astonishing debut as a leader—would be Tony Williams's 1964 Life Time, on which Miles Davis's teenage drum sensation threw listeners a curve by extending his reach as a composer while inching closer to that era's avant-garde than he dared do with Miles. Williams didn't even play on "Barb's Song to the Wizard," Life Time's most engrossing track, written by him but conceived as a dialogue between Herbie Hancock and Ron Carter. Sorey, who first made an impression as a sideman on Vijay Iyer's 2003 Blood Sutra, is likewise present only as a composer on the 43-minute "Permutations for Solo Piano," That/Not's ultimate provocation—the performer is Cory Smythe.

Though superficially resembling numerous works by James Tenney (the archest of all minimalists), "Permutations" seems directly descended from Eric Satie's notorious "Vexations," which calls for one short chordal phrase to be delivered 840 times. (Posthumously published in 1940 and lasting some 18 hours, it was given its first complete performance in 1963 by a relay team of pianists, including Tenney, John Cage, and the pre–Velvet Underground John Cale.) Sorey's "Permutations" consists of a short chordal phrase repeated 400 times before I lost count. Thirty seconds into it, you're exasperated; three minutes in, you're hooked—there for the duration. The turning point is in realizing that the piece is really an exercise in call-and-response rather than repetition: The phrase is made to answer itself through subtle variations in tempo and pitch, occasional arpeggiation, and sustain-pedal overtones that hang in the air between repetitions and become all-enveloping by the end. Minus access to a score, it's impossible to say how much discretion Sorey allows Smythe, though I'm guessing nowhere near as much as that allowed by Satie, whose only instruction to a performer was to prepare himself in silence for "grave immobilities." Whereas "Vexations" may have been a jest, never intended to be performed, "Permutations" is dead serious. Music gets no more abstract than this, yet it leaves you tingling with emotion.

Champian Fulton, master enunciator
Patrick Chisolm
Champian Fulton, master enunciator

The rest of That/Not—involving Sorey, Smythe, bassist Thomas Morgan, and trombonist Ben Gerstein—is more conventional only if your idea of "conventional" is '60s Cecil Taylor, or Matthew Shipp at his most off-kilter. Sorey is a master of crescendo both as a drummer and a composer, and the most gripping of these group performances—"Cell Block," particularly, with its telegraphed allusions to Monk's "Rhythm-a-Ning"—swell and contract again without warning. Via overdubbing (I assume), Sorey also plays better-than-composer's piano on two tracks, Smythe sitting out or switching to Wurlitzer. To judge from what I've been reading, the less Stockhausen you've heard, the more Miles Davis's On the Corner sounds like him, just because Miles once said so. But Gerstein's low center of gravity—his slow-decaying slides and abrupt silences—throughout Sorey's "Seven Pieces for Trombone Quartet" actually intimates a familiarity with the work of Vinko Globokar, the key man in Stockhausen's "intuitive" music of the late '60s. And the fourth of the piece's seven brief episodes, a smeary near-rumba, should answer any questions anyone might raise concerning Gerstein or Sorey's jazz bona fides.

That/Not has its flaws: At over two and a half hours, its overabundance works against it (and an additional 70 minutes is available for free download!). Several performances, including "Cell Block" and maybe even "Permutations," go on too long; "Template," featuring the quartet improvising over what sounds like a phonograph needle digging into vinyl, is broken into four parts and scattered across the two discs for no good reason. But on balance—wow. Inasmuch as self-produced CDs not serviced to reviewers are making it hard for even the most diligent of gatekeepers to keep up these days, it's possible that what will ultimately prove to be 2007's most momentous debut slipped by me. But I doubt there's been one as provocative—or as polarizing, should enough people hear it—as That/Not. Though Tony Williams went on to fulfill his promise as a drummer and then some, the compositional initiative he showed on Life Time became his road not taken. I'm hoping Sorey's similarity to him ends there.

Quick notes on a few other 2007 debuts that caught my ear:

Amir ElSaffar, Two Rivers (Pi). Disciplined free jazz fused with maqam, a microtonal (and endangered-even-before-the-invasion) Iraqi folk-pop music comparable to raga in that although there are only 50 or so primary forms, mixing and matching them and their many variants make the possibilities endless. Here and there, ElSaffar—a Chicago-born Iraqi-American—gives a taste of the real thing or close enough to it, singing in what I take to be Arabic while accompanying himself on santoor, an Iraqi stringed instrument played like a hammered dulcimer. (And no, those Hebraic echoes aren't your imagination: The early masters of modern maqamwere Jews who fled Iraq for Israel in the 1950s.) But the headiest moments come on originals simultaneously plaintive and jaunty enough to be by Ornette Coleman or Don Cherry, like "Hamayoun," with Carlo DeRosa's bass and Nasheet Waits's drums rushing ahead of ElSaffar's speech-inflected trumpet and Rudresh Mahanthappa's gorgeously strident alto, or "Khosh Reng," where the meter is a dancing Syrian 17/8. With Tareq Abboushi's frame drums and buzuqadding spice to the rhythm section and Zafer Tawil tuning his violin like a rebab (spike fiddle) and doubling on oud, there's an awful lot going on here, none of it betrayed by that whiff of exoticism carried by so many other jazz-initiated fusions of this sort, no matter how sincere. As with Vijay Iyer's Indian rhythmic cycles or Anthony Brown's Asianized Gershwin, the difference is all in the artist's acute awareness of his own.

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