you’ve got this piano and soprano duo, you’ve got a couple of conventional quartet tracks, even though they’re not playing conventionally at all... that was sort of the impetus for That/Not, my first release, and what I was able to do there within a quartet of musicians.
He taught me through these records to really, no matter what it is, write it out and believe in it. It doesn’t matter what it is you write, what style – there’s no such thing as traditional or avant garde or anything like that. You write what you write, and if it happens to be for shakuhachi and koto, write it and try to get it played, and see if you can get people to come to the concert and check it out. Braxton was what made me realise my relationship to music, in terms of what I wanted to pursue. In terms of not really having a pursuit at all, really. In other words, there’s no goal with it. The goal is in the pursuit itself, in terms of what you’re interested in and to what degree you want to pursue those interests, and how to go about getting them represented in the best possible way. And so Braxton also provided the encouragement, through his music and through me being around him, to define terms. To really define the elements in his music that maybe other people would try to find and then it would forever be miscategorised, as we’ve seen through the course of history with other creative practitioners in the music, where the media and people like that would define work for them.
Like, why call his music avant garde? People use these terms as a way to label the music and position it within a certain frame of reference or aesthetic. But what Braxton did, by writing the Tri-Axiom Writings and the composition notes and everything, he sought to define his terms in a way that was clear for everybody to understand. At least I understand it. I understand exactly what he’s after in terms of his placement within music as just one who’s wanting to learn. The same way people like Roscoe Mitchell and George Lewis and Muhal Richard Abrams – they’re always trying to learn.
Cecil Taylor/Bill Dixon/Tony Oxley “T _ C x B” From Cecil Taylor/Bill Dixon/Tony Oxley (Victo) 2002 Is this Misha [Mengelberg]? No. It reminds me of Misha a little bit. What’s the delay there? It’s deliberate. It’s Cecil Taylor, Bill Dixon and Tony Oxley – it’s a record I love but a lot of people hate. Why? Because they’re not playing the same stuff they played in 1960? [laughs] What’s fascinating is, it’s Dixon pulling Taylor into his world, which is not the way it usually works. Yeah. He’s another one of those people who’s all about self-definition, from very early on, which I think is great, and I think we need more of that in our music community now. You have to do that very early on, or else people will try to define you. The thing about Cecil is, his work – especially in the 1960s, I’m thinking particularly of Unit Structures, Conquistador!, Student Studies – is so methodical, so defined, just in terms of how logically the musicians in the ensemble have to communicate. I’d say all of the music is pretty much composed, just in terms of how all the people in the ensembles are operating together. I mean,
Cecil did, in these groups, what Bill Dixon would call ‘getting the musicians in the room’. So there’s a certain logic with which he’s working, just in terms of whatever compositional or improvisational parameters that he gives to members of the group. If you look at the liner notes in Unit Structures, he has these three different categories in which he has the musicians interacting with each other. One is anacrusis, and there were two others, but I forget what the names were, but the point is that his work is so incredibly defined back then. It’s just one more way of getting the musicians to know, you have to really think seriously about the concept that we’re playing here.
It’s amazing how much stuff is exemplified in a Cecil Taylor recording, just in terms of it coming from serial music or 20th century music and the blues being also a key element in his music, and even spirituals. You can feel some kind of spiritual thing in his work. It’s sort of mystical but not in some ‘wooo’ sense. He’s really after something that’s bigger than himself in those records. That’s what fascinates me about Cecil’s music, and he, like Braxton, they set into motion the idea of people defining their own work. And ironically, on that recording, Bill Dixon sort of turned the tables. Like, with Cecil, you’re playing his concept. But Bill’s getting Cecil into his room.
Painkiller “Damage To The Mask” From Guts Of A Virgin (Earache) 1991 I like this already. Is that [John Zorn’s] Locus Solus? No, but it’s Zorn in Painkiller, with Mick Harris from Napalm Death and Bill Laswell on bass. Cool. I’m not familiar with Painkiller. You’ve been working with Zorn for a few years now – how does he challenge you as a player, and as a thinker about music? I sort of would consider him my musical soulmate in a sense. I’ll tell you a funny story. We were in Chicago, at the Museum for Contemporary Art, and they were doing a composer portrait out there with The International Contemporary Ensemble, who called me and asked if I could participate in reading the composition The Tempest. So I show up, I’m at the rehearsal, and Zorn shows up. Now, we run
Cameron Graves through the piece, and he was way up in the balcony or whatever, so we start playing and we had to stop for a second and John stands up in the seats and he’s like, ‘Is that Tyshawn? Is that you?’ He seemed a little bit shocked that that was me up there playing this pretty difficult chamber piece that he wrote. I think that’s what started our collaboration together. So what was great about Zorn was that he already saw in me... because the piece The Tempest was also written for improvising drum set, there are improvising passages but there’s also complex notated passages for percussion. So when we started working on the music for In The Hall Of Mirrors , I show up at the studio, ready to record, and Zorn’s like, ‘Use your ear. That’s all you need to do.’ [laughs]
I already kinda had some familiarity with his language. John said, ‘Feel free to think counterintuitively’, and I already knew what he meant by that. Like, don’t follow the score, or don’t mimic the score; don’t mirror it. You can play with it, you can play against it, you can not play at all, you can do something completely sparse, or loud against a really quiet passage, et cetera. Most of the tracks are first takes, and it led from there. Zorn, I guess he’s very happy with my contribution anyway, so it doesn’t really matter what I do, as long as it’s cool and it’s musical and it works within the framework of what we’re doing. That’s why I call him my soulmate, because it’s the same thing I’m after in my own work.
Cameron Graves “The End Of Corporatism” From Planetary Prince (Mack Avenue) 2017 It reminds me a little bit of Christophe Schweizer, but I don’t think it’s him. It’s Cameron Graves, who works with Kamasi Washington, who’s also on this track. How much attention do you pay to so-called mainstream jazz? It’s easy to get tucked away in the avant corner and lose sight of the broader world. I gotta be careful with that, because already I wasn’t familiar with this at all. I thought it was some other avant group who was doing something sort of mainstream-sounding. I try to stay abreast of what’s happening in the mainstream, but I’m too busy focusing on my own music and developing my music and working on stuff. I’d like to be more familiar with some of this stuff, and it’s not a slight against any of the musicians who are doing more mainstream things. I mean, they’re expressing themselves and doing the best that they can in whatever thing they’re doing, even though it’s not in my area of interest in terms of what I’m after as a composer.
I know that I’ll never get to play big places, and I can live with that. I have to live with the work that I do, and that’s more important than playing to 15,000 people or whatever. And for those who like it, that’s who it’s designed for, the work that I do. So people like Kamasi, when music like that is so commercially viable, and I don’t mean that to sound at all derogatory – his music is more appealing to more people, and that’s cool. And I respect that. You can tell by Kamasi’s work that what he’s expressing is truly what he wants to do, and the sincerity of music is what I’m interested in. And with Kamasi, if it means reaching out to 15,000 people, that’s cool. If for me it means playing to 150 people and everybody likes the music and I feel good about the work, then that’s cool too.
24 | The Wire | Invisible Jukebox | Tyshawn Sorey