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Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Tyshawn Sorey, Julia Bullock, ICE - Josephine Baker: A Portrait (World Premiere, Ojai Music Festival, 2016)

Tyshawn Sorey*
By Lee Rice Epstein

Although this blog only occasionally dips into new music, I did want to share some thoughts about Tyshawn Sorey’s world premiere from this year’s Ojai Music Festival. The festival itself takes place every June in the rural town of Ojai, California, about 20 miles inland from Ventura. Alex Ross has written about the festival in The New Yorker and on his blog a few times, and it’s worth looking up those articles to get a sense of the artistic scope and intimacy of the performances. There have been a handful of intersections with quote-unquote jazz over the years, and in 2017 Vijay Iyer will be music director, and he’ll bring both his trio and sextet out for the festival, tweaking the format considerably. If anyone wants to meet up, my wife and I are already planning to attend.

Sorey’s discography is probably well-known to readers of this blog, but his chamber work has not yet been recorded, even though you can find plenty of videos online. Still, this was an exciting event for me, a chance to see a brand new Sorey composition that combined elements of chamber music, improvisation, spoken text (written by Claudia Rankine, author of the critically-acclaimed Citizen: An American Lyric), and rearrangements of songs notably performed by Baker:
  • “Bye Bye Blackbird”
  • “Sous Le Ciel D’Afrique” (“Under the African Sky”) 
  • “Madiana (Mélodie Antillaise)” (“Madiana (West Indian Melody)”)
  • “C’est Ça Le Vrai Bonheur” (“That’s It, True Happiness”)
  • “Si J’etais Blanche” (“If I Was White”)
  • “C’est Lui” (“It’s Him”)
  • “Terre Séche: Negro Spiritual” (“Dry Earth: Negro Spiritual)”
The performers included members of ICE, with Claire Chase on flute, Rebekah Heller on bassoon, Ryan Muncy on oboe, Jennifer Curtis on violin, and Daniel Lippel on guitar. Sorey switched between piano, percussion, and drums. Julia Bullock, at center stage on a raised platform, inhabited the role of Josephine Baker, reciting portions of Rankine’s text between each song, singing in both English and French, and, during one captivating interlude, dancing, in a duet with Sorey on drums.

Sorey, who hasn’t recorded much as a pianist, has a light, open approach to the instrument. Early on, he played ringing chords and sustained notes, typical of his compositions. Then, drawing out the tension in a later passage, he played the piano strings with a small mallet and did some light preparations, holding strings while he played single notes. Bullock was simply incredible. The piece, which premiered late Saturday night under heavy cloud cover, was absolutely stunning, in both conception and execution. Sorey, Bullock, and Rankine have created an incredibly powerful statement on art, race, gender, and sexuality. Typically, some parts of the festival are available to stream online, and I highly recommend seeking this out.

* Photo from: