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Tyshawn Sorey forcefully pushes past the boundaries between classical and jazz

John Rogers

Tyshawn Sorey laughs appreciatively when a description of his composition “Movement,” from Sorey’s 2014 album “Alloy,” is read to him during a recent telephone interview.

“It’s a bit like Alban Berg playing piano in a hotel lounge at the end of the world,” the New Yorker’s Alex Ross had written in a piece on Sorey this past spring.

“I love that line,” says Sorey, who arrives Tuesday for a three-day residency at New England Conservatory that will culminate with a free concert at Jordan Hall. “It’s one of the best, best ways of describing the piece.”

“Movement,” which will be among several Sorey compositions he’ll perform with NEC students and faculty members, is a work that blurs boundaries separating 20th-century classical music and jazz. The piece, like Sorey himself, is a perfect match for NEC’s Contemporary Improvisation department, which got its start at NEC in the 1970s under Gunther Schuller and Ran Blake. Back then it was called the Third Stream department, named for the term Schuller had used during a 1957 lecture at Brandeis to describe music that mixes classical and jazz.

“I can’t imagine anyone on the planet who more epitomizes what we’re going for in Contemporary Improvisation at NEC than Tyshawn,” says department co-chair Hankus Netsky by e-mail. “I also see him as a musician who fully understands the ideas of the musicians who combined the worlds of contemporary European and African American composition and improvisation in the 1960s — Cecil Taylor, Eric Dolphy, Ornette Coleman, Bill Dixon and, of course, his teachers, Anthony Braxton and George Lewis, something that, in my opinion, changed our creative musical landscape in a major way.”


Braxton and Lewis are both major figures in the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, which got its start in Chicago in the 1960s, sharing Third Stream’s eagerness to eliminate barriers between jazz and classical music but from a more African-American perspective. Sorey would eventually study with Braxton while earning a master’s degree at Wesleyan University, and go on to work with Lewis at Columbia University, where he earned his PhD in 2017. Later that year, Sorey took over the retiring Braxton’s chair at Wesleyan, where he is now an assistant professor of music.


But Sorey had gotten to know both men before studying with them formally, and it was his early encounters with Braxton in particular that made him realize he could become a composer.

Sorey recalls hearing music by Braxton and another AACM principal, Muhal Richard Abrams, on WKCR-FM. “I guess I was just very much into the music,” he recalls. “It reminded me of the work of late Coltrane. It didn’t quite sound like that, but the vibrations were similar for me.”

After hearing that radio broadcast, Sorey found a copy of a Braxton album at the Newark Public Library that changed his life.

“I played it, and then I saw the picture of the composer,” Sorey explains. “Now keep in mind, I wasn’t much thinking about being a composer. Being a composer was a thing that you don’t really learn at all, especially in inner-city households.

“I always wanted to play some kind of music — be a sideman, play in so-called jazz groups and that kind of thing,” Sorey continues. “But when I happened on Braxton’s work, and then there’s a picture of Braxton as a composer, and I’m like, ‘Whoa!’ It’s OK to want to be a composer.”


Sorey did in fact go on to become an extraordinary sideman on drums, performing on Vijay Iyer’s 2003 album “Blood Sutra” while still an undergraduate at William Paterson University, and going on to record with Steve Coleman, John Zorn, AACM stalwarts Braxton, Abrams, and Roscoe Mitchell, and many others. This year the DownBeat Critics Poll ranked him jazz’s third best drummer, behind Brian Blade and Jack DeJohnette.

But he studied classical trombone at William Paterson and was determined to become a composer. An encounter in a recording studio with his hero Braxton during his sophomore year helped with the latter. When Braxton asked if Sorey was working on any compositions, Sorey replied that he had a handful he wasn’t serious about and planned on throwing away.

“He was like, ‘Don’t throw anything away!’ ” recalls Sorey, laughing. “He basically said, ‘If you write a piece of music, you have to believe in what you’re doing.’ ” Braxton advised Sorey to avoid catering to other people’s tastes, and eventually those early compositions became part of a book of 41 Sorey compositions, 10 of which were recorded a decade later on Sorey’s 2011 album “Oblique-I.”

Sorey first encountered Abrams and Lewis in the early 2000s as well, and recalls Lewis greeting him as “a future co-conspirator.” Yet another major influence Sorey met around that time was Butch Morris, whose conduction technique for directing improvised music became the topic of a senior project for which Sorey gave a brief demonstration to a skeptical group of students and wrote an A paper.


Sorey will give a fuller demonstration of conduction on his piece “Autoschediasms” on Thursday. The night’s wide-ranging program will also include the aforementioned “Movement,” Sorey’s orchestral work “For Bill Dixon and A. Spencer Barefield,” his chamber pieces “For Fred Lerdahl” and “Inner Spectrum of Variables (Movement III),” his noise project “LOUD” featuring faculty member Joe Morris, a duo improvisation with Anthony Coleman, and excerpts from a Yiddish theater project that features Sorey’s arrangements and orchestrations.

Challenging material all of it, for musicians and audiences alike. But what else would you expect from a 2017 MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” recipient whose music for “Josephine Baker: A Portrait” had its world premiere, in 2016, at the prestigious Ojai Music Festival?

“It’s basically a deconstruction of Baker as this ‘iconic entertainer,’ ” says Sorey of that project, which was done in collaboration with renowned theater director Peter Sellars and doubled as the focus of Sorey’s doctoral dissertation. “I don’t do music for the sake of entertainment. That’s never really been a thing about me.”

Tyshawn Sorey

Performing with New England Conservatory students and faculty. At Jordan Hall, 30 Gainesborough St., Oct. 3 at 7:30 p.m. Free, but tickets are required, www.necmusic.edu/events/contemporary-improvisation-tyshawn-sorey

Bill Beuttler can be reached at bill@billbeuttler.com.