Tyshawn Sorey: Top of the Tree? Part One

I’ve been exploring the ‘101 Best Jazz Albums of the 2010s’ list, collated by the guys at the Free Jazz Collective (FJC) website. The word ‘Album’ seems a tad anachronistic, given the multiplicity of of content providers across the said decade, but hey, many of us still love a list! Consisting of names old and (for me at least) new, the whole exercise got me thinking about that other much contested word, ‘Jazz’ itself. I’ve had  a few occasions to quote the comment of the Chicago-based music critic John Corbett, “resistance to naming is a sign of volatility” (from his 1994 classic Extended Play), which seems as good a description as any to query the  name given to much of the music delineated by this list. (The music can be downloaded from the FJC site while reading about the album concerned, which is most appreciated by this particular reader.)

Top of the list is Tyshawn Sorey’s mammoth Pillars, which takes up three (each one considerably lengthy) compact discs, and which retails at around 50 quid. Now, I don’t want to come across here as a penny-pincher, but…The download factor comes into play at this point, and, if I come to like these recordings enough, I might shell out, but this is some way off at present.  200-odd minutes of this stuff is a LOT of material, especially as projects of this scale almost always are somewhat of a curate’s egg. What on earth happened to the concise, 35-odd minute ‘statement’, such as Brilliant Corners or A Love Supreme? Or is this just a case of false equivalences? So many modern day recordings seem a tad grandiose - for example, did Kamasi Washington start the ‘hypertrophy phase’ off with The Epic in 2015, or does it go back even further, with Goldie’s itself epical drum and bass ‘symphony’Timeless, from 20 years earlier, in 1995 ?(These two can definitely be compared, what with their massed strings and choirs, and undoubted sense of self-importance and ‘significance’.) The Epic was unquestionably ‘jazz’  - it ‘swung’, for example (the ‘Braxton test’?), but could the same be said about Pillars? And have we finally moved beyond this sort of determinism? After all, one definition of jazz (Wiki) is music containing “rhythm patterns, harmonic practices related to functional harmony, and the practice of improvisation”. So far, so vague.

The first part of Pillars reminds me a bit of the Bill Dixon/Barry Guy collaboration from the early 90s, Vade Mecum, with the addition of considerable electronics. Jazz, but not as we know it? For me, this is ‘improvised music’, with most of the ‘jazz’ rinsed out. It might point those sufficiently interested ‘towards jazz’, but the latter is not the main ingredient. Of course, this is an argument as old as the hills - syncretic constructs have been put forward in jazz music since its earliest days: by Ellington, Scott Joplin (Treemonisha), James P. Johnson (American Suite-Lament), Charles Mingus (Epitaph), Barry Guy, Anthony Braxton, various Jazz Composers Orchestras, right up to the likes of William Parker (Mayor of Punkville), never mind his namesakes, Charlie and Evan.


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The banner picture is by the late Mal Dean (1941-1974), which featured on the cover of the 1972 Incus Records vinyl release, Live Performances at Verity's Place, by two free improvisation pioneers, the English guitarist Derek Bailey and Dutch percussionist Han Bennink.