He explores the inner and outer reaches of modern jazz and serious contemporary music, putting equal emphasis on composition and improvisation. Yet no matter how far he travels, he remains anchored by a firm sense of tradition.
Tyshawn Sorey doesn’t necessarily need for you to hear him play drums. He loves to play drums, and he’s a wiz at it—that much is clear as soon as you see him at the kit. But he picks his spots to sit down and play.
When it’s time, you might catch him at a club gig with pianist Vijay Iyer, or in a live improvisation at John Zorn’s New York City performance space, the Stone. Maybe you’ll put on pianist Myra Melford’s quietly subversive 2018 album The Other Side of Air, or you’ll stumble on the video of a studio workout from WNYC’s New Sounds with a new, currently unnamed electroacoustic ensemble Sorey has formed—a session where the drummer is playing a twenty-eight-inch gong snare.
You see, Sorey has other things on his mind as well. On his own seven albums as a composer—the latest being last year’s three-volume Pillars—you won’t find a drumming showcase. Instead, what you’ll encounter is likely to challenge your ear, and your mind. “His own music has a very different sensibility than what he’s known for as this volcanic drummer in people’s bands,” Iyer, a close longtime collaborator, explains. “His music might strike people as the exact opposite of that, because it has this serenity and this hypnotic expansiveness. But then to realize that it’s all the same musical spirit, and to know that he contains these multitudes, it’s really inspiring.”
Indeed, Pillars takes the idea of hypnotic expansiveness to an extreme, its trio of seventy-five-minute pieces unfolding slowly and sometimes unsettlingly, but always unpredictably, as members of the eight-member ensemble check in and out, indistinguishably blending composition and improvisation, which is a hallmark of Sorey’s writing and drumming alike. “I wanted us to deal with the notated material first, before we dealt with open improvisation,” Sorey says. “The musicians got that music in their head, and they were able to see the kind of focus and endurance it takes.
“The pieces were already conceptualized in my mind,” Sorey adds when asked about the editing phase that completed the album. “But the musicians didn’t know it, and I didn’t want them to know it, because I didn’t want them to lock themselves to a particular thing.”
That last idea—not locking yourself—is key here. As MD caught a couple of starkly different performances in New York this past January, just before sitting down with Sorey in the East Village, we got a tutorial in true creative diversity. First, in a dramatic staging on the grand staircase at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, we caught a rare production of Perle Noire: Meditations for Joséphine, based on the life of dancer, singer, and civil rights activist Joséphine Baker. Sorey wrote the lush, haunting music inspired by Baker’s songs; at the Met he joined a five-piece strings-and-woodwinds ensemble on electric keyboard and a large percussion array that included a djembe, a concert bass drum, and a kit of sorts. He played sparsely and patiently for the most part, letting things breathe in the actively reverberant hall, as soprano Julia Bullock portrayed Baker beside him.
Then, around a week later, at the Jazz Standard, we caught a whole other thing: Iyer’s trio, with Linda Oh on bass. With drummer/educator Michael Carvin sitting in the audience (“When I knew he was there I was like, Uh-oh…I’d better be on top of my game,” Sorey says), Sorey was the volcanic drummer that Iyer mentions, whirling around his steampunk-looking A&F kit while remaining locked with Iyer and Oh in delivering deeply demanding music. He swung, he grooved, he exploded—but he also offered the drumming qualities you’ll hear on his own albums, like moodiness and whisper dynamics. He can sound warm and soft or cool and sharp; his desire to avoid falling back on old tricks can make it appear as if he’s playing a piece for the first time, in a good way.
Roughly two years ago, shortly before being named a 2017 MacArthur Fellow, Sorey relocated from the New York City area to New Haven, Connecticut, to take a position as assistant professor of music at Wesleyan University in Middletown. The drummer/trombonist/keyboardist, who is now also an assistant professor of African-American studies, replaced Anthony Braxton on the composition faculty, after studying under Braxton while earning his master’s at the school in 2011. (Sorey received his doctorate at Columbia in 2017.) In becoming a teacher himself, Tyshawn has found a way to pass along to others the kind of mentoring knowledge and guidance that have pushed and inspired him on his own unique path to musical greatness.
MD: Over the last ten days I’ve seen you play two very different gigs here in New York, and just before that you did a conducted improvisation in St. Paul. Is there an adjustment process in switching projects like that?
Tyshawn: Not necessarily. It’s like code switching, basically—no matter what socalled language you’re speaking, no matter with whom you’re talking, you should always be 100 percent in the moment and in whatever the conversation is.
MD: Has it been a good month?
Tyshawn: It’s been a really great time, being able to make all this different music. It’s rejuvenating. That rarely happens now, given where my career is, where I’m more of a composer than a performer per se. But I don’t necessarily find those two things mutually exclusive.
It’s been an exciting time to be able to play drums regularly. I’m starting to carve out more time to dedicate to practicing. I’m also raising a two-year-old daughter. Having a family is so inspirational, and there’s so much to gain from that as a musician.
MD: Has settling in New Haven while teaching at Wesleyan helped to ground you?
Tyshawn: It has. I mean, I’ve been in the New York area for over thirty years. I’ve had enough of life in this environment. [laughs] My move to New Haven, and my getting this job at Wesleyan University, was the best thing that happened to me. I chose [to live in] New Haven because it was sort of where I musically came of age. When I recorded my first album there at Firehouse 12 Studios, That/Not , it was a heavy moment in my career as a drummer and a composer. So I have very strong ties with New Haven.
MD: That/Not is a heavy album. To have the courage to make such non-drummerly music…
Tyshawn: …it’s sort of an anti-drummer record!
MD: Getting ready to do these latest gigs in New York, did you have to prepare for Perle Noire?
Tyshawn: No, I came cold. I don’t have a lot of time to think about what’s going to happen. And Perle Noire is a composition that doesn’t really allow for that anyway. First of all, the music is hard. Second, any mistake can happen in any performance of music. But I’m not interested in mistakes, as it were; I’m more interested in opportunities to create something else based on those mistakes. That’s what that music means to me: it means I dare you. If a mistake happens, how can you get out of it?
So it’s a sort of controlled chaotic environment. And to me that’s really what defined Joséphine Baker, as an extraordinary entertainer and an extraordinary figure in the civil rights movement. She embodies that daring aesthetic, where opportunities come about as a result of letdowns, or as a result of mistakes. Sometimes I only wish that we could just take the score away—see what it would be like to play that music with no stands.
MD: I’m not sure why I’ve been trying to figure out the right way to ask you this, but as you focus more on your own music… you do intend to continue playing lots of drums, right?
Tyshawn: Obviously! [laughs] Hell, yeah. I couldn’t live without doing that.
MD: It’s fascinating—you do gigs where you’re really playing, yet your own compositions tend to stay away from that.
Tyshawn: Exactly. But I’m making situations now where I’m playing a lot more. My sextet is more toward the quote-unquote modern-jazz side of things, and I’m doing a lot more playing in that group than even in my trio. And there’s a sort of electroacoustic group that I formed with Val Jeanty, Graham Haynes, Brandon Ross, and High Priest, where I also do a lot more playing. Even though it’s abstract, it has a groove kind of thing to it. Since not a lot of people are calling me anymore to do gigs, I’ll just make my own projects.
MD: Do you think you’re getting fewer calls because you’ve made it clear that you want to concentrate on your own music?
Tyshawn: That’s part of it, and also I’m expensive. I take no shame in saying that I demand a certain amount of money to perform. I’m not going to sit here doing a bunch of “door” gigs. I’ve come up doing that almost my entire career.
I think it’s the most respectful way that I can be to myself: to not be this quote-unquote drummer for hire, who’s kind of a “yes” guy and has no vision of my own. I’ve always had my own vision; now I’m able to really see it. I had to do the sideman thing for many years, to establish myself, and I don’t regret a moment of that. But at the same time I’m like this: if people stop calling me, I’m just going to represent myself as best I can through my own music. And it’s even more rewarding because it’s my music.
But at the same time, if I do get a call for a gig, I’m down to do it. As long as it’s a project that I really feel like I can invest my time in. I want to live a life where I can have that kind of freedom.
MD: You’ve worked incredibly hard, but you’ve been uncompromising about doing non-mainstream stuff. You’ve achieved a rare level of success in that sense.
Tyshawn: It wasn’t always so easy for me. I’ve hit a lot of bumps in the road. And I may have burned some bridges. But we get better, and we live and learn.
Anybody can do it. You gotta be out of your mind if you want to be successful in this kind of thing. [laughs]
MD: You do everything the hard way.
Tyshawn: Exactly. That’s the story of my life.
MD: It seems that in each performance situation you really make yourself vulnerable, open yourself up. It’s not, “I’m gonna play my licks.” Is there a risk in doing that?
Tyshawn: Not for me. If you’re not vulnerable in the act of music making—I don’t care if you’re playing a written-out part—you’re not in the music. Music is not just playing a written-out part or some kind of pattern; music is a shared experience. It’s a special kind of bonding that you can’t get any other way.
MD: And to remain a blank slate is not easy. Most people tend to fall back on the stuff they know.
Tyshawn: Yeah. I hate that. [laughs]
MD: In terms of putting your personal voice in your compositions, have you learned to achieve that, or did you have that from the beginning?
Tyshawn: It was natural for me to do that. When I wrote the music for That/Not, I wanted to challenge myself, but not in a technical way—just more conceptually. In terms of: I’m a drummer, but so what? What is my relationship to the instrument if I don’t play it? Does that mean that my compositions are not informed by my drumming? Of course they’re informed by my drumming, but they’re going the completely opposite direction of what I would play back in those days—2005, 2006, 2007—a lot of drums, very dense, all kinds of meters, really crazy, wacky music. And I had a lot of fun doing it. But what I noticed was that I didn’t get to experience, for example, using negative space. Or what it means to play pianissimo for a half hour. That kind of thing.
It was natural for me to do something that was completely opposite to what I was doing before. Because I don’t want to make the same records as my bandleaders. Even as a composer—that’s why you see that in my discography every record is completely different, in terms of how I play on it, even the compositions themselves.
MD: Let’s talk about what studying various musical disciplines can bring to your technique.
Tyshawn: Well, that can be a long story. When I started studying it was under Kenny Washington, in NJPAC’s Jazz for Teens program, in 1997, 1998. That was a great experience, because it taught me about the fundamentals of proper technique. I needed some major help with my touch, even though I kind of knew how to play.
One time, when I played something that was heavy handed and very loud, Kenny played the same thing that I played, but with just no effort whatsoever. It was amazing. He said, “You’ll be able to get that if you practice the rudiments. You shouldn’t have to work too hard to get a full sound.”
Another thing Kenny was pushing: it’s very important that you know how to read, and how to play another instrument, because that’s going to help you play drums better and help you make music better with other people. As far as playing in a band context, Kenny was very influential, too.
Then I started getting together with instructors like Billy Hart, and John Riley a bit later, which turned my whole world around. And Ralph Peterson after that. Bill Goodwin. It was quite an adventure. When I worked with John Riley at William Paterson, the last fifteen minutes of our weekly lesson he would play some kind of international music on the drumset. He gave me a lot of West African, Indian, and Afro-Cuban rhythms and applied them to drumset in his own way. That stuff told me that you’re not necessarily going to get by just playing the pattern as written. It’s about really getting the feel together. It’s very hard to play and make it feel good.
I encourage any drummer, no matter how old they are, to seek the masters out and to keep studying. You can never know too much. I’m almost forty years old, and I haven’t stopped studying. I’m trying to study with Michael Carvin. I tried to seek out Tony Allen for a lesson.
Milford Graves—when I got together with him recently he was telling me how important it is for young folks to seek these people out. There’s no real apprenticeship situations for younger musicians like myself—we don’t have any Art Blakeys anymore, these mentors with classic bands. But it’s our job to keep the music alive in the best possible way, and the only way we can do that is by getting together with people who have done it. It’s vital to keeping the music healthy, and it gives us a sense of humility. People think they know everything: Oh, I can play more stuff than these people I’m asking to study with. It’s like, you might, but what good is it if it doesn’t come from a foundation? Some people look at me as this super-avant-garde, “out” kind of drummer, but I come from the same tradition that a lot of other people do. I want to be as informed as possible, because it gives what I’m doing greater depth.
MD: I hope younger drummers will seek you out in this sense, although you’re doing something different at Wesleyan, teaching composition.
Tyshawn: I did a lot of drumset instruction at the New School, before I got this Wesleyan thing. I was only twenty-three, twenty- four years old when I started teaching there. I wasn’t even out of college myself.
MD: What are you trying to impart to your composition students?
Tyshawn: I try to get them to take their work seriously, and to believe that they can write music and perform their own music if they so choose. The thing I want them to take is mostly encouragement, to pursue whatever they want to pursue.
There was one student in my graduate composition seminar who felt discouraged about her work, because she felt that it wasn’t as advanced as a lot of work the graduate composers were doing. They were required to write a string quartet, and hers had fairly simple notation, and it wasn’t as quote-unquote advanced rhythmically as some of the other works. She turned it in, and she burst into tears as she handed it to me.
I was like, “Wow, are you okay? What’s happening here?” We talked about what she wanted to do, and she had some really cool ideas but didn’t quite know how to notate them. So we spent an hour or two looking at how she could realize those ideas. She revised the piece, and it came out as one of the best-sounding pieces of the concert. And she told me that she finally got up the confidence to believe in her work, to take herself seriously. So I try to give that same sense of belief to any student. Hopefully I can help them fulfill their dreams—even if it means having to do things over again. That might be necessary to get to the next place.
Vijay Iyer on Tyshawn Sorey
“We both do a lot of different things, and somehow we’ve done just about every damn thing there is to do,” pianist Vijay Iyer says of his work with Sorey. “What haven’t we done?” Sorey agrees. In addition to playing together in duo, trio, and larger configurations—including the Vijay Iyer Sextet’s 2017 album, Far from Over—the two co-direct the International Workshop in Jazz & Creative Music each summer at the Banff Centre in Canada.
MD: How did you first cross paths with Tyshawn?
Vijay: Our first recording together is my  album Blood Sutra. By then he had been in my group for over a year. He was already beyond state of the art, doing stuff I’d never heard anyone do, or really imagined possible. [laughs] He’s been a dear friend and collaborator ever since.
MD: Could you describe some of those things?
Vijay: He was able to internalize and retain complex formal details about a composition, basically in an instant. The first time I played with him, I handed him this page of music that had an intricate form that even I had trouble with, and he just sort of glanced at it and handed it back to me. [laughs] And he still remembers it to this day.
But then he would immediately start transforming it and making it better. The written part wasn’t a burden whatsoever; it would organize what he was doing, but he would basically be completely free. And he could hear everything that was happening around him. And by hear I mean decode, and know. Like if I played some chord, he would know exactly what notes were in the chord—it was that kind of ears.
I’ve come to realize over the years, working with people like Tyshawn and Marcus Gilmore, and getting to know Jeff “Tain” Watts and Jack DeJohnette and Ralph Peterson, that really the drummers are the most complete musicians in the history of this music. They always have been. They’re not just people who bang on things on the side. [laughs] It’s almost like we’re reinforced to think that drummers are basically sub-musicians, that they’re the ones that support everyone else but don’t really know what’s happening.
But what I’ve learned is that they think like composers; they have a great deal of knowledge about form and harmony and melody and counterpoint and orchestration, and usually a huge range of knowledge about different kinds of music. Extreme sensitivity as listeners.
MD: What kinds of things does Tyshawn do in your Banff Centre workshops?
Vijay: He started doing conducted improvisations—or autoschediasms, as he calls them—and that would become this galvanizing experience for all the participants, because they’re all pushed in a new way. There’s this generosity in the quality of his listening, where he brings something out of you that you didn’t know you had. He has a sensibility that’s very much part of the African-American music-making tradition: to hear the person in the music, and to express one’s own personhood in your music. It’s like this kind of radical empathy that emerges in the process.
As the years went on, it’s like, Wow, this guy’s a sorcerer, in the sense that everybody would basically be worshipping him by the end of these things. So now we’re officially sharing the load as co-directors. And that works really well because we know each other so well, and we’ve learned so much from each other over the years, I dare say. I’ve certainly learned from him.
“This is a very partial list of albums featuring live drums that have inspired me over the years,” Sorey says, “a snapshot of my interests as a drummer, composer, and artist.”
Frank Zappa The Man from Utopia (Vinnie Colaiuta, Chad Wackerman) /// Dan Weiss Starebaby (Dan Weiss) /// Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers Buhaina’s Delight (Art Blakey) /// Kate Gentile Mannequins (Kate Gentile) /// Jan Garbarek Sart (Jon Christensen) /// Miles Davis Miles at the Fillmore: The Bootleg Series Vol. 3 (Jack DeJohnette) /// D’Angelo Black Messiah (Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, Chris Dave, James Gadson) /// Gorguts Obscura (Patrick Robert) /// Can Tago Mago (Jaki Liebezeit) /// Sly and the Family Stone Fresh (Andy Newmark) /// Branford Marsalis Quartet Braggtown (Jeff “Tain” Watts) /// Tony Allen Plays with Afrika 70 No Accommodation for Lagos (Tony Allen) /// Makaya McCraven Universal Beings (Makaya McCraven) /// The Flying Luttenbachers Trauma (Weasel Walter) /// Jimmy Smith Crazy! Baby (Donald Bailey) /// Jerome Cooper The Unpredictability of Predictability (Jerome Cooper) /// Cryptopsy None So Vile (Flo Mounier) /// Deantoni Parks Technoself (Deantoni Parks) /// John Coltrane One Down, One Up: Live at the Half Note (Elvin Jones) /// The Music Improvisation Company The Music Improvisation Company (Jamie Muir)
“Setups can include additional drums, cymbals, and percussion: glockenspiel, vibraphone, concert bass drum, almglocken, cup chimes, tam-tams, and many other items,” Sorey explains. “My mantra, as it relates to gear, is that I try to stay ready for any musical situation, so that I don’t have to get ready!”
Drums: A&F Drum Co. Maple Club kit in antique red finish (above left)
A. 3×10 steel Rude Boy snare (used mostly as auxiliary snare)
B. 14×16 floor tom
C. 12×20 bass drum
Not pictured: 4×14 or 5×14 raw brass main snare, 8×12 tom
1. 16″ (or 15″) 2002 Big Beat hi-hats
2. 24″ (or 22″) 2002 Big Beat
Not pictured: 20″ or 22″ left-side crash, 16″ or 18″ right-side crash; Sorey also plays similar models from the Formula 602 and Formula 602 Modern Essentials series
Heads: Aquarian Texture Coated
Sticks: Vic Firth
Hardware: Roc-N-Soc Mac Saddle throne; Tama Classic bass drum pedal, hi-hat stand, snare stand, and cymbal stands
Drums: A&F Drum Co. Maple Club kit in black finish (above right)
A. 6.5×14 raw copper elite (or 6.5×14 solid core maple) snare
B. 8×12 tom
C. 14×14 floor tom
D. 14×20 bass drum
1. 15″ (or 14″) Masters Thin hi-hats
2. 22″ (or 20″) Masters Thin ride
3. 24″ (or 22″) Masters Thin ride
Not pictured: 18″ or 20″ Masters Extra Thin right-side crash; Sorey also plays similar models from the Masters Dry, Masters Dark, and Formula 602 series