John Zorn Presents: The Stone Commissioning Series: Vicky Chow featuring Shanir Blumenkranz and Tyshawn Sorey at National Sawdust 12/27/17 (by Sean Gough)

PERSONNEL: Vicky Chow (piano), Shanir Blumenkranz (bass), Tyshawn Sorey (drums)

SET: Trilogy: I. Tender buttons-II. Nightwood-III. Epode, L’ Antitête, Scaramouche (all by John  Zorn)

PERSONNEL: Sae Hashimoto (vibraphone), Blumenkranz, Sorey

SET: The Exterminating Angel (Zorn)

PERSONNEL: Stephen Gosling (piano), Blumenkranz, Sorey

SET: Illuminations (Zorn)

HIGHLIGHTS: An enthusiastic crowd filled the seats for 2017’s final event in The Stone Commissioning Series, which features a world premiere by a current composer/performer each month.

The Sawdust’s website described this program as “classically written piano notation in trio with an improvised rhythm section.” How either Zorn or the players achieved this remains unclear. Blumenkrantz and Sorey had sheets in front of them that they turned occasionally. Chow used an iPad with a pedal switch for frequent page turns during improbable passages. More impressive than the page turns were the hairpin turns: dynamically, pianistically, collectively, as the players without apparent difficulty revealed the fierce extremes and on-a-dime contrasts of the music.

Granted, the notation allowed some of these coordinated shifts. But the synchronicity of the shifts also hid the fact of the notation. It’s a compliment to everyone to say that the music did not sound like “classically written piano notation in trio with an improvised rhythm section.” It sounded unified and spontaneous. And lest anyone assume that “fierce” means unremittingly “out,” several of the pieces contained sections worthy both of Debussy and Pat Metheny. There were even some brief sections of genuine swinging.

Zorn chose to follow the three pieces with Chow, including the world premiere of “L’ Antitête,” with the American premiere of “The Exterminating Angel” — “not that bullshit up at the Met,” Zorn joked. Featuring Sae Hashimoto on vibraphone, the staggered emphatic hits at the outset made way to a recurring motif/melodic shape on the vibes surrounded by the bass and drums. In terms of execution, these parts were more fathomable than the first three pieces on the program. Hashimoto conjured an arresting range of sounds, including bowing, distortion, and plain lushness. Blumenkranz also played a masterful, eerie solo.

The final piece on the program, “Iluminations” (based on a prose poem by Rimbaud) brought up pianist Stephen Gosling, cited by Zorn as “the initiator of this” experiment in notation/improvisation. Although this piece sounded the most written-out of any, it also contained some of the most startling resounding sonorities, made possible by Sorey’s pitch-perfect stirrings.

The music retained an essential playfulness, lacking telegraphed attempts at profound statements. This may have owed something to the specific, primarily literary inspirations for the pieces? At any rate, credit to Blumenkranz and Sorey, whose contributions throughout were both virtuosic and elegant.

— by Sean Gough