Tyshawn Sorey describes his approach to music as trans-idiomatic, a term that communicates the fluidity of his creativity in boldface. His is an inclusive tack apparent in everything from actual music-making to the spirited updates that regularly pepper his Facebook page. The panoply of posts via that second outlet trawl far and wide, from Peggy Lee and Janis Joplin YouTube clips one minute, to shout outs to the works of Charles Ives and Edgard Varese the next. Sorey even touched on American Idol 7 as the subject of a string of passionate musings, readily copping to possible reader incredulity while simultaneously offering no apologies. In his artistic purview, inspiration can be found anywhere and everywhere — the trick is to remain open to its appearance whatever the guise.
Sorey’s previous two albums as a leader tilted toward an immersion in the work of modern composers (like the aforementioned Ives and Morton Feldman) through minimalist playing and intricate, introspective structures that took these starting points and ran with them. His other collaborative work has been equally fence-resistant, from the math-jazz trio Fieldwork with saxophonist Steve Lehman and pianist Vijay Iyer to an assembly of other gigs ranging from an early recording debut with the Billy Bang/Sirone ensemble on Silkheart and the Klezmer power-trio Leviticus with Michael Winograd and Dan Blacksberg. That last is an unexpected outlet, maybe, but once again evidence of the drummer’s dogged interest in placing himself in virtually any creative context.
Oblique-I, Sorey’s Pi debut as a leader, departs from his earlier two efforts by turning the page back to a series of 41 compositions he penned between 2002 and 2006 as a Wesleyan post-grad and performed over roughly the same period at Zebulon Café in Brooklyn. The influences of Anthony Braxton and Steve Coleman are immediately apparent in the complex interlocking harmonies and oblique grooves of the disc’s opener, “Twenty.” Numerical titles differentiate the selected compositions, but follow no sequential order. Subsequent pieces parse the ensemble out into sub-groupings and solos, beginning with a starkly circumscriptive duet between altoist Loren Stillman and pianist John Escreet that folds into the sprawling following piece “Thirty-Five,” with Escreet making a surprising and effective switch to Wurlitzer.
Building from these strong earlier segments, the disc truly hits its stride in the final third, starting with the sharply contrasting pieces “Seventeen” and “Twenty-Five.” On the former, guitarist Todd Neufeld attacks his instrument in jagged bursts reminiscent of Derek Bailey. His jangled interplay with Sorey and bassist Chris Tordini constitutes the album’s most viscerally engaging stretch. Escreet’s work on Fender Rhodes during the latter track is the perfect tonal decision, the ghostly sonorities of the electric keys accentuating the piece’s haunting ballad edifice. Throughout these and the other pieces (save “Eighteen” where he sits out), Sorey’s drums act as flexible fulcrum, parsing time signatures one moment, pivoting to floating pulse patterns the next. That kind of power and versatility wedded to precision recalls drummers like Paul Motian and Hamid Drake, though any semblance of slavish imitation is completely out of Sorey’s scope. We can only hope that the conspicuous Roman numeral in the album’s title hints of a return to Sorey’s old book someday soon.