New Music by Five Composers Behind the Drums, From Tyshawn Sorey to Allison Miller

Oct 14, 2018

Take Five celebrates albums by five amazing drummers whose music defies stereotype.

Tyshawn Sorey, “Pillars II”

When Tyshawn Sorey became a MacArthur Fellow last year, the selection committee hailed him for “musical creations that celebrate alternative musical modeling within the improvisation-composition continuum.”

Sorey, a product of Newark Arts High as well as the doctoral program at Columbia, has produced plenty of work fitting that high-minded description, but nothing else with quite the heft of Pillars, a flabbergasting new opus that stretches across three CDs, containing nearly four hours of rigorous, texture-rich, resolutely unplaceable music.

Each disc features one long performance, packed with details that morph and evolve in what Sorey calls a “non-directional” thematic development. It’s a lot to take in — though perhaps “take in” isn’t the right language, as this is really music to get lost in, by way of a surrendering immersion. To that end, Sorey and Firehouse 12 Records have provided WBGO with an exclusive: “Pillars II,” which takes up the album’s second disc, running 75 minutes.


There’s so much to experience in this hour and 15 minutes of elaborative and volatile energies. “Pillars II” begins with a dynamic double-bass duologue by Mark Helias and Zach Rowden, and moves on to electric guitars, via Todd Neufeld and Joe Morris. One passage that begins around 35:00 is built around the dungchen, a long Tibetan horn. It’s played by Sorey — circular breathing a drone even as he taps an orchestral bass drum and a series of gongs.  

The eight-piece ensemble on Pillars — the other members are Stephen Haynes on trumpets and small percussion, Ben Gerstein on trombone and melodica, and Carl Testa on bass and electronics — navigates this shifting terrain with deep attunement to the moment. Listen to “Pillars II” with even a fraction of their concentration (and an attendant disregard for idiom), and you’ll be transfixed.

Sorey begins a three-night residency at The Kitchen on Sunday, Oct. 21, duo with pianist Marilyn Crispell. He’ll present new ensemble pieces on Oct. 22 and 23.

Ralph Peterson’s Aggregate Prime, “L’s Bop”

Ralph Peterson has long been celebrated as someone who took the pulse of hard-bop and ratcheted it up to a fever pitch. He is also a composer and trumpeter with a perch at the Berklee College of Music, where he has mentored more than one generation of gifted students. Some of those younger players appear in his Gen-Next Big Band, which just released an Art Blakey tribute album. This week, Peterson releases a separate live album featuring his band Aggregate Prime, with Gary Thomas on tenor saxophone and flute, Mark Whitfield on guitar, Davis Whitfield on piano, Curtis Lundy on bass.

The album — Inward Venture: Alive Vol. 5 at the Side Door (Onyx Music) — has all of the brash kinetic energy you’d expect from such an assemblage. Its closing track is a Lenny White tune* called “L’s Bop,” with a cascading melody over a storm-surge vamp. The track, which has its premiere here, features knockout work from Thomas and both Whitfields, as well as a vintage Raging Bull drum solo, which kicks in at 8:15.

Ralph Peterson and Aggregate Prime celebrate the release of Inward Venture this Wednesday and Thursday at Jazz Standard.

Allison Miller and Carmen Staaf, “Ready Steady”

We’ve heralded the melodic side of drummer Allison Miller recently, in this episode of Jazz Night in America. That show featured music by her main working band, Boom Tic Boom, which I had the pleasure of seeing at the Hyde Park Jazz Festival in Chicago a couple of weeks ago. Miller also has a new album out, Science Fair (Sunnyside), with one of her bandmates, pianist-composer Carmen Staaf.


Miller and Staaf working in several formats on the album, ranging from duo to quintet (with trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire and saxophonist Dayna Stephens). By and large, though, this is a trio album with Matt Penman on bass. On a Miller composition titled “Ready Steady,” the trio borrows a page from the Joni Mitchell harmonic playbook, and maybe another page from the Paul Motian school of rhythmic undercurrent, to devise a track that swings with a quiet determination — with the occasional expressionistic outburst, like an urgent news bulletin.

Bill Stewart Trio, “Good Goat”

There’s a good chance you’ve heard Bill Stewart in a trio setting, stoking the rhythmic fires behind John Scofield, Pat Metheny or Chris Potter, to name but a few. On a smart new album called Band Menu, Stewart convenes his own trio, with bassist Larry Grenadier and tenor saxophonist Walter Smith III. The band, which recently played a week at the Village Vanguard, functions partly as a showcase for Stewart’s tunes, which have long been an undervalued part of his portfolio.

“Good Goat” is one of the more assertive pieces on the album — an uptempo swinger with a melodic line that encourages a bob-and-weave approach from the band. During Smith’s solo, the rhythm section bears down in a way that calls the early-1990s Branford Marsalis Trio to mind. But there’s a sly character to the unfolding action that feels pure Stewart, and true to form: pay special attention to the drum solo that creeps in over a walking bass line, just after 2:30.

Anthony Fung, “A Call For Peace (For Puerto Rico)”

I first heard Anthony Fung about a year and a half ago, as part of the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz Performance. A smart and searching drummer with an obvious grasp of the big picture, he struck me as someone to keep an eye on. With Flashpoint, his second album, Fung fully validates that notion, making great strides not only as a drummer-bandleader but also, decisively, as a composer.

The album consists entirely of his tunes, which reflect a vision of cool modernity — informed by the languages of Wayne Shorter and Billy Childs, among other mentors. Fung often moves in a quicksilver cadence, but the track above is a mournful and majestic ballad. Its dedication acknowledges not only the hardship of Puerto Rico during last year’s hurricane season, but also the harrowing experience of Edmar Colon, the tenor saxophonist in Fung’s band. Another saxophonist (and Monk Institute alum), Alex Hahn, plays soprano on the track, and wrote the tasteful string arrangement. The entire performance is deeply assured, with Fung’s pen setting the tone.

* An earlier version of this post miscredited “L’s Bop” as a Ralph Peterson original.