Recording of May 2023: The Off-Off Broadway Guide to Synergism

Tyshawn Sorey Trio + 1: The Off-Off Broadway Guide to Synergism
Sorey, drums; Aaron Diehl, piano; Russell Hall, bass; Greg Osby, alto saxophone
Pi P196 (3 CDs, available as download). 2022. Sorey, prod.; Kengchakaj Kengkarnka, recording/mixing eng.
Performance *****
Sonics ***½

There is no one like Tyshawn Sorey. As a jazz drummer, he is at home in the far reaches of the avant-garde. As a composer of contemporary classical music, he gets commissions from major orchestras for his concertos, oratorios, and operas. His extreme eclecticism makes him an enigma (he cites Asian folkloric music and death metal as influences), yet his renown keeps growing. He is ridiculously prolific. The long list of awards he has won includes the MacArthur "genius" Fellowship, one of the most coveted prizes in American arts and sciences.

The New Yorker once described Sorey as "unpredictable to the point of unnerving." Last year, he did the one thing no one expected him to do: He released a standards album. Mesmerism had Aaron Diehl on piano, Matt Brewer on bass, and Sorey on drums. Sorey has now followed it with The Off-Off Broadway Guide to Synergism, which also contains jazz standards and pieces from the Great American Songbook. It is a three-CD set, recorded live over four nights in March 2022 at the Jazz Gallery in New York. It keeps Diehl as pianist but subs Russell Hall on bass and adds Greg Osby on alto saxophone.

Sorey's embrace of standards is not a retreat toward convention. On the contrary, it is yet another of his iconoclastic acts. Today's jazz world has become obsessed with original composition. Records made by jazz musicians under 40 tend to be all or mostly original material. Meanwhile, the vast legacy of great repertoire in the jazz canon lies fallow.

By basing his sets at the Jazz Gallery on familiar tunes, like "Out of Nowhere" and "I Remember You," Sorey connects his music to history. The songs become touchpoints, messages embedded within the otherwise boundless designs of a wildly creative ensemble. It is a rush when, on the very first track of the set, you realize that Osby's passionate onslaughts contain fragments of Cole Porter's "Night and Day."

The dynamic range of these performances extends from minimal intrusions on silence to thunderous tumult. Tunes segue from one to the next without breaks. Some songs are sacred texts, like Billy Strayhorn's "Chelsea Bridge," which these players clearly regard as too beautiful to entirely deconstruct. Osby acknowledges Strayhorn's melody in the long flowing of his introductory cadenza, but his phrasing reshapes it, and he adds his own decorations and asides, while Diehl imagines new chords and counterlines. On Fats Waller's "Jitterbug Waltz," Osby lunges down the song's famous stairsteps, almost crashing. Moods can shift without warning, even within tracks. The band rewrites "What's New?" on the spot. Osby's outpourings of eighth notes contain only occasional suggestions of Bob Haggart's wistful hymn to lost love. When Diehl takes over, he turns the song dark as a dirge over the slow throbs of Hall's bass.

This album documents two noteworthy events: the first time an extraordinary band ever played together, and the resurrection of Greg Osby. In the 1990s and early 2000s, Osby made 14 albums for Blue Note and was one of the premier alto players in jazz. Since then, he has not led a working band and has recorded infrequently. He is still an exciting, fearless, tireless improviser. On the two takes of "Ask Me Now," he wrings every conceivable implication from Monk's great ballad.

This album is also a breakout for Diehl. Until now, he has been regarded as a refined, skilled, relatively conservative player, grounded in the great jazz piano tradition. (He is best known as Cécile McLorin Salvant's accompanist.) Sorey brings out a side of him few knew, given to jagged harmonies and naked aggression. His edginess here makes his lyricism all the more piercing.

Sorey's achievements as a conceptualist and composer have caused people to neglect what got him noticed in the first place: his drumming. Because of his complex, surging, protean percussion, this music, even in its quieter interludes, always feels dangerously volatile. As for Hall, he specializes in highly effective motivational bass ostinatos.

Press notes say that this project was "inspired" by a 1997 live Blue Note album by Osby, Banned in New York, which was recorded, famously, on a MiniDisc player on a table in front of the band. Fortunately, Sorey's album sounds nothing like Banned in New York. The Jazz Gallery's house engineer, Kengchakaj Kengkarnka, used a simple setup with very little separation or individual miking beyond the stage mikes. It works. The sound is neutral, plain, and clear.

Sorey's first standards album, Mesmerism, was widely acclaimed. The closely watched Jazz Times critics poll chose it as the second-best jazz record of 2022. The Off-Off Broadway Guide to Synergism is even better.—Thomas Conrad