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Vijay Iyer Trio



by Ian Mann

July 18, 2012


The trio seem to have an almost telepathic understanding and a shared sense of musical adventure.

Vijay Iyer Trio


(ACT Music & Vision ACT 9524-2)

The recent news that pianist and composer Vijay Iyer had won an impressive five awards in the annual DownBeat Magazine critic’s poll, including a best album award for “Accelerando”, was all the incentive I needed to take a look at this impressive album, a worthy addition to the ACT catalogue in the company’s twentieth anniversary year.

Born in New York to Indian parents the gifted Iyer has acquired a considerable reputation for his brilliant but sometimes challenging music. He brings his fearsome intellect (he’s also a trained mathematician) to his music along with a broad range of cultural references, for example his 2011 album “Tirtha” explored his Indian heritage.

With his award winning trio (voted best group in that DownBeat poll) Iyer is more interested in exploring the legacies of jazz and popular music. “Acclerando” builds on the success of 2009’s acclaimed “Historicity”, his début for ACT, and explores a similarly eclectic range of jazz and pop compositions alongside a clutch of Iyer originals. Once again the pianist is joined by the highly talented team of bassist Stephan Crump and drummer Marcus Gilmore, brilliant technicians who are more than capable of meeting the challenges Iyer throws their way. A regular working unit the trio seem to have an almost telepathic understanding and a shared sense of musical adventure. They take their chosen material and meld into exciting new shapes, the process of “versioning” as Iyer has described it.

All of this makes Iyer sound incredibly cerebral but despite the fact that there’s an undeniable intellectual rigour about his music there’s also a raw urgency and excitement too. Iyer is keen to express just how rhythmic the trio’s music is, emphasising the dance impulse at the very roots of jazz. “I never want to lose that foundation of rhythmic foundation in my work” he asserts,, “that’s what Accelerando is concerned with, that physicality of music. For me music is action.” There can certainly be no argument with that last statement, the music on “Accelerando” is turbulent and intense, never still, highly interactive and veritably teeming with ideas. The trio’s use of rhythm comes from many sources, jazz figures such as Bud Powell, Max Roach, Ahmad Jamal, Duke Ellington and Thelonious Monk but Iyer also points to the influence of James Brown, Jimi Hendrix, The Meters and Earth Wind & Fire. Then there’s Indian music, African music and Javanese gamelan, it’s all grist to Iyer’s mill makes for an intoxicating, heady brew.

The album commences with Iyer’s brief “Bode”, a kind of overture featuring sparse piano chords and eerily bowed bass with Gilmore providing vivid splashes of colour from behind the drums. The controlled energy of his playing provides a good counterpoint to the comparative solemnity of his colleagues. Another original, “Optimism” develops from this, adopting a suitably buoyant groove which Iyer develops, the music gradually becoming more complex as Gilmore faithfully shadows the composer. A quieter central section allows Crump to demonstrate his abilities with a highly dexterous solo that paves the way for a furiously intense final “crescendo” section as the trio exhibit their superb control of dynamics. “It erupts from the light to the visceral” explains Iyer in the album’s press release.

The first “pop” song to get the Iyer treatment this time round is Rod Temperton’s “The Star Of A Story”, originally recorded by his 70’s disco group Heatwave and later covered by George Benson.
Here Iyer picks out the melody above Gilmore’s insistent but ever shifting hip hop inspired grooves.
Crump’s bowed bass adds a pleasingly dark edge to this one time disco anthem but the sheer physicality of Gilmore’s playing ensures that the trio’s interpretation remains well within Iyer’s rhythmic concept as notes tumble from the piano and the piece builds inexorably to a climax. 

Temperton wrote a number of hits for Michael Jackson and it’s a piece indelibly associated with Jackson that follows, “Human Nature” written by Steve Porcaro and John Bettis. The song has something of a jazz pedigree having been appropriated by Miles Davis and turned into something of a latter day standard. The tune obviously holds a fascination for Iyer who investigated the piece on his superb 2010 solo piano album (simply entitled “Solo”). The trio version is very different and sees Iyer taking the tune away from its normal ballad treatment and investing it with an urban edginess courtesy of his own flinty sounding piano and Gilmore’s broken drum grooves. Crump’s muscular bass holds it all together as Iyer increasingly wanders off piste, only fragments of the original melody remaining as the trio continue pull the song out of shape as they increase the intensity of the music. Interestingly on this nine minute epic interpretation Iyer chooses to take his foot off the pedal in the tune’s closing stages, a welcome change in his methodology.

“Wildflower” by the pianist Herbie Nichols (1919-63) represents a first dip into the jazz canon. “it’s a tune I really love” says Iyer as he expounds above the loose rhythmic framework established by Crump and the busy Gilmore. “There is a lightness and elegance in spite of the harmonic darkness” says Iyer, “it’s dissonant, but it makes you smile”. Iyer also speaks of Nichols having been influenced by the stride pianists as well as Duke Ellington, Stravinsky and Prokofiev. I think I can hear Nichols’ near contemporary Thelonious Monk (another Iyer favourite) somewhere in there too. 

Iyer has expressed his love for exploring material not normally associated with the piano trio citing both the Heatwave piece and “Mmmhmm” co-written by the contemporary producer and recording artist Flying Lotus (born Steve Ellison and the cousin of Ravi Coltrane) and his protégé the bassist Thundercat (Stephen Bruner). I can’t claim any knowledge of the original but once again it’s a question of Iyer taking a relatively simple melody and twisting it out of shape in his own inimitable way. Crump’s work here, both with and without the bow is superb, his arco adds a sense of melancholia to the piece that enhances it greatly. Gilmore’s neatly energetic drumming provides the rhythmic impetus that is the albums raison d’etre. Iyer really gets within the inner architecture of the piece and as throughout the album the process is fascinating.

Iyer has a fondness for the music of the great Henry Threadgill, one of jazz’s most interesting and influential figures. Iyer takes Threadgill’s “Little Pocket Sized Demons” and transposes it for the piano trio, Threadgill’s original score featured two tubas, two guitars and a French horn. In an attempt to capture something of the fullness of Threadgill’s sound Crump’s arco bass is prominent in the mix and Gilmore and Iyer are both fiendishly busy as they attempt to recreate Threadgill’s counterpoint and polyphony. Apparently Threadgill himself attended a rehearsal and gave the trio some pointers. The piece is a thrilling listen, this is the sound of musicians stretching their abilities to the limit.

Three Iyer originals follow. “Lude” offers some rare moments of pianistic lyricism but Crump’s virile bass groove ensures that the trio soon begin to up the wattage, exploring further harmonically and upping the rhythmic impetus to culminate in the jagged, insistent groove towards the end of the piece.
The title track is a concentrated burst of energy that begins with the sound of a drum machine from which a spiky groove develops. Iyer’s playing is almost frighteningly intense as torrents of notes pour from his piano vying for space with Gilmore’s bravura drumming. Iyer’s crashing left hand chords emphasise the rhythmic aspect and Crump’s bow is heard briefly before the close.
Actions Speak” features lightning fast piano arpeggios and skittering drum grooves and is the vehicle for a highly colourful extended feature from the always excellent Gilmore. 

The album concludes with Duke Ellington’s “The Village Of The Virgins” from his jazz ballet “The River”. There’s a celebratory gospel feel about this and Iyer and his colleagues keep things relatively simple by their standards. It’s a rousing way to round off an impressive and intriguing album full of tremendous playing and audacious harmonic and rhythmic ideas.

Iyer’s focus on rhythm has ensured that this has been his best received album yet, all the reviews I’ve seen have been remarkably positive, and it’s probably his most accessible recording to date, it could be argued that some of his other releases have been impressive but a little claustrophobic. The DownBeat awards (besides the categories mentioned above Iyer also won Jazz Artist of The Year, Top Pianist and Rising Star Composer) plus a rapturously received performance at London’s Vortex Jazz Club suggest that there is a real buzz about Iyer at the moment, something this excellent album will only encourage. 

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