Tyshawn Sorey – Koan – 482 Music 482-1069, 60:48 ****:
(Tyshawn Sorey – drums, cymbals, producer; Todd Neufeld – electric & acoustic guitar; Thomas Morgan – bass, acoustic guitar)
Drummer Tyshawn Sorey may be known to jazz listeners for his angular and driving rhythms and frenetic style as a member of the Fieldwork trio or collaborations with John Zorn, Steve Coleman, Dave Douglas and others. But on his sophomore release, Koan, Sorey devises a minimalist method that amalgamates ambience, sparse luminosity and quiet, but potent strength.
Over the course of an hour Sorey, guitarist Todd Neufeld and bassist/guitarist Thomas Morgan make use of restrained pacing, open improvisation and relatively structure-less musical forms to explore the way people perceive the movement of time, space and even silence. If a person can conceive of all three elements as being both physical and philosophical, then Sorey’s compositional thinking and performance will yield understanding.
Obviously the application of space in music is not unique: John Cage, artists on labels such as ECM or Clean Feed, and additional innovators have examined comparable territory. Cage and Morton Feldman are acknowledged influences, but Sorey also cites Wayne Shorter, Charles Mingus and non-musical inspirations including Zen Buddhism as well. To take the analogy further, Sorey’s open-form material shares a simplicity and sureness of design akin to Bonsai gardening, where every small gesture has larger implications to harmony and aesthetics in general.
The threesome start off with the appropriately-titled "Awakening," an almost 13-minute sound tapestry which moves with glacial grace and a haunting feeling of distance. Closer inspection, though, reveals cadenced complexity due to the result of layered rhythmic cycles. Sorey says in the album liner notes, "The tune’s mostly written in 4/4 time, but it’s not really in any time – depending on how you hear it." As Sorey establishes gradually more intricate drumming, Neufeld advances back and forth between austere chords and strums, often sculpting notes that dissolve to near disintegration before shifting onward. At the conclusion, Sorey and Neufeld disappear and Morgan extemporizes a dirge-like dialogue where bass notes melt away and decay.
Although songs can be heard as separate entities, the six tracks are best experienced as one suite, since the parts indicate a greater whole. There is a macrostructure similar to a cell in an organic mass or the grammar that regulates any language. That helps to clarify the brief, fragmentary twin-guitar duet, "Only One Sky," the CD’s shortest selection, which was not composed until postproduction, and was initially an outtake of the introduction for another tune. Here, Sorey steps away from the proceedings. Morgan switches to acoustic guitar and he and Neufeld – who also employs some underlying electronics – design a Pat Metheny-esque communication that suggests a wintry outlook. The twosome serve up another allied six-string pairing on Ralph Towner-like "Two Guitars," wherein nylon string acoustic guitar and delicately positioned electric guitar are used to incisive effect.
Keeping to the concept of an interconnected suite, "Two Guitars" drifts directly into "Embed," the most traditional – but still unconventional – work. While Sorey avoids any standard time signatures, Neufeld stimulates with his representative chords while Morgan provides discreetly dissonant bass notes. The trio progresses through lucent harmonics and longitudinal melodies. While there is no swing, there is momentum.
The project’s longest cut, "Nocturnal," has a cool demeanor related to "Only One Sky." The song has a careful transit and interactive spontaneity between Sorey, Morgan and Neufeld that exemplifies Sorey’s approach to having no front line. The trio, as a collective and on their own, adds to the mix with certainty and with no specific objectives. There is a meditative freedom that is harmonious and impulsive. Sorey utilizes mallets, cymbals and precisely placed percussion that often whisper and whisk rather than relinquish a familiar beat. Correspondingly, Morgan and Neufeld articulate a kindred noir-ish quality: Neufeld’s skeletal lines linger in the air while Morgan’s bass flows in a relaxed flux like an ebbing tide.
Engineer Richard Lamb and Sorey, acting as producer, have achieved a meticulous recording, which is important for the music on Koan, where there are all but silent instances, such as the nearly noiseless denouement to "Nocturnal," when an electric current is barely noticed. There are understated characteristics that cannot be absorbed at one time but which wait to be found on repeated listening when strict attention can be given to Sorey’s systematic viewpoints.
2. Only One Sky
3. Correct Truth
5. Two Guitars
— Doug Simpson