Hot Wax – Album Reviews: January 2019

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Tyshawn Sorey

Pillars (Firehouse 12)

  • Tyshawn Sorey – drums, conductor, trombone, dungchen, percussion
  • Stephen Haynes – trumpet, flugelhorn, cornet, alto horn, percussion
  • Ben Gerstein – trombone, melodica
  • Todd Neufield – acoustic & electric guitar
  • Joe Morris – electric guitar, acoustic bass
  • Mark Helias, Zach Rowden – acoustic bass
  • Carl Testa – acoustic bass, electronics

A son of Newark, New Jersey, drummer Tyshawn Sorey has carved quite a niche in jazz’s outer limits – he’s worked with Vijay Iyer, Anthony Braxton, the late Muhal Richard Abrams, Roscoe Mitchell, and Steve Coleman. In 2017 he received a MacArthur Fellowship aka a “Genius Grant,” and that’s helped enable him to create this, his magnum opus, Pillars.

It’s an ambitious, rather demanding work – it’s one long piece, covering three CDs and nearly four hours in length. While Sorey is an excellent drummer, his drumming is not center-stage herein – he is featured as composer/organizer, and Pillars is a work that pays no mind to the genres/labels jazz, classical, and (free) improvisation. This work does not attempt (to this writer, anyway) to achieve a fusion of these, but it draws upon each as Sorey (conductor as well as percussionist) deems fit. It’s not a “linear” work a la Ellington or Mingus, telling a “story” and moving toward a climax or crescendo so to speak. Conceptually it’s closer in spirit to the late compositions of classical composer Morton Feldman (1926-1987), some of whose individual works can cover three or four CDs each. Like Feldman’s later compositions, “Pillars” is a piece of music that unfolds resolutely and gradually. Further, it doesn’t feature conventional harmony nor swing, and silence(s) are as crucial as the notes and phrases played by the ensemble. There is much ebb and flow – instrumental combinations form surreal, spare textures. Early on, Sorey engages in intimate dialogue with guitarist Todd Neufeld; rumbling deep-low-sounding percussion converses in a manner that evokes ancient African and Asian spiritual rituals. Brass collides with thundering drums, bellowing horns cry out to the spirits, chunks and sighs of electric guitar guide the listener down long halls of unnerving contemplation, trombones growl like primal human vocalizations. All the musicians push their respective axes to their limits, bringing out sounds and motifs that wouldn’t occur with conventional playing. It’s hard to discern where composition leaves off and improvisation begins – and I don’t think Sorey would have it any other way. In fact, “Pillars” seems to be conducted improvisation, somewhat akin to the late cornetist/composer Lawrence “Butch” Morris.

As you, dear reader, may’ve gathered by now, Pillars is not chill-out jazz – nor is it a roaring conflagration of free sounds, although aspects of both creep in. It exists in its own sonic world, sharing some affinities with the most challenging works by jazz-fellows Braxton, The Art Ensemble of Chicago (likely a BIG inspiration here), and Bill Dixon, and modern composers (out of the Euro-American classical continuum) Feldman, Karlheinz Stockhausen (who was an influence on Miles Davis’ electric music), and Iannis Xenakis. Seeking a challenge full of fascinating, sometimes confounding sounds? Sorey has fashioned a challenge full of fascinating, sometimes confounding sound, the latest thing in uneasy listening. (Mark Keresman)

Joel Shapira

In Essence (Noiseland)

  • Joel Shapira – guitar

Talk about a fresh approach to jazz guitar: Mr. Shapira employs three – count ‘em – three. Since this is not a video, we have to imagine how he juggles the instruments until they become, in effect, a guitar trio.

Perhaps he used studio trickery. Anyway, for you guitar aficionados, here are their IDs: Electric: 1969 Gibson L5, 2002 D’Angelico; Acoustic: Martin steel string 2912; Classical: (nylon string) Ramirez Concert 1986.

Now to the music, which is pretty much wonderfully unusual and fascinating listening. It’s certainly obvious that Shapira didn’t learn in his garage. In fact, he had some very special teachers, including two absolute masters, Joe Pass and Tal Farlow. The repertoire is choice, comprising 12 jazz and popular music tunes, most if not all of which would make any true music lover’s favorites list.

Here are some highlights. Thelonious Monk’s “Bemsha Swing” is nearly 14 minutes of Shapira’s marvelous bluesy manipulation of the guitars, from the sharply picked theme to a strummed bassline. Listening to the uncommon melding of three quite different guitars is challenging as well as fascinating and ultimately, entertaining.

You might call it an aural puzzle, as you listen closely to the threesome on Joe Henderson’s “Recordame,” Miles Davis’s “Nardis” done in flamenco, the mostly plucked Wayne Shorter ballad “JuJu.” Shapira concentrates on the wonderful melody of “Autumn in New York” and swings discreetly through “You Don’t Know What Love Is.” He digs in, however, and swings hard on “Isotope,” a second Joe Henderson contribution. Covering Monk again, “Crepescule With Nellie” is given an appealing light Latin feel.

Unlike some jazz players, Shapira doesn’t shy away from love songs – sometimes referred to as “schmaltz”  back in the day. You can’t get much schmaltzier than Jimmy van Heuson’s sadder-than-sad “Here’s That Rainy Day.” Shapira early on plays with a touch of brightness, but soon gives in and at the finish, his playing seems almost tearful. It takes a while, but “Rainy Day” clinches the realization that Shapira applies thoughtfulness, deep feelings, and respect to every song he chooses to play. (Bob Protzman)

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