Tyshawn Sorey, A Musical Shapeshifter, Wins MacArthur 'Genius' Prize : The Record The wide-ranging composer, drummer, pianist and trombonist has been defying easy category since childhood. Now only 37 years old, he's just getting started.
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Tyshawn Sorey, A Musical Shapeshifter, Wins MacArthur 'Genius' Prize

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Tyshawn Sorey, A Musical Shapeshifter, Wins MacArthur 'Genius' Prize

Tyshawn Sorey, A Musical Shapeshifter, Wins MacArthur 'Genius' Prize

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

The MacArthur Foundation has just announced the winners of this year's so-called genius awards. This grant can honor a long career, or for 37-year-old musician, Tyshawn Sorey, it can provide freedom for a career to flourish.

NPR's Anastasia Tsioulcas visited him in his office at Wesleyan University in Connecticut.

ANASTASIA TSIOULCAS, BYLINE: Tyshawn Sorey is dressed entirely in black as he usually is. When he plays, he often wears sunglasses no matter the time of day or night.

That's a stereotypical uniform for a jazz musician, but Sorey wears it because it fits his shy personality, and he doesn't want to be called a jazz musician.

TYSHAWN SOREY: I am a composer and multi-instrumentalist, a drummer, percussionist, pianist, trombonist and I'm also a conductor.

(SOUNDBITE OF TYSHAWN SOREY COMPOSITION)

TSIOULCAS: His music ranges from masterful solo drumming...

(SOUNDBITE OF TYSHAWN SOREY COMPOSITION)

TSIOULCAS: ...To Ethiopian-inflected music for a small group...

(SOUNDBITE OF TYSHAWN SOREY COMPOSITION)

TSIOULCAS: ...To works for jazz trio.

(SOUNDBITE OF TYSHAWN SOREY'S "CASCADE IN SLOW MOTION")

SOREY: I don't have any particular interest in construct, you know, in terms of social construct like what I'm supposed to listen to as a black kid growing up around the projects in Newark.

TSIOULCAS: Even as a child in Newark, N.J., Sorey was totally wrapped up in music.

SOREY: Growing up, I mean, I've never really gone out and played with other kids or anything or hung out with other kids.

TSIOULCAS: He did well in school and he's always been a scholar and he listened to everything from Morton Feldman to Charlie Parker to Public Enemy.

(SOUNDBITE OF TYSHAWN SOREY'S "BERTHA'S LIAR")

SOREY: I was always interested in sound. I wasn't necessarily only interested in rhythm, melody and harmony.

TSIOULCAS: Much the way an abstract painter is interested in color and shape and form. Sorey doesn't want listeners to pick apart what he does - what's composed, what's improvised and what genre it supposedly falls into.

SOREY: Deal with the mystery of it all because sometimes it's best not to know. Go with how the music makes you feel.

TSIOULCAS: As an artist still in his 30s, Tyshawn Sorey says that winning the MacArthur is providing him encouragement to think even bigger.

The $625,000 fellowship gives him the freedom to pursue some large-scale projects that have long been a dream. Anastasia Tsioulcas, NPR News, New York.

GREENE: And we should note the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, which awards these grants, is among NPR's financial supporters.

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