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Vijay Iyer



by Ian Mann

October 08, 2010


Iyer has taken on the challenge of the solo piano album and succeeded brilliantly.

Vijay Iyer


(ACT Music 9497-2)

The reputation of pianist Vijay Iyer has been steadily growing since the 1990’s and his early work with M-Base founder Steve Coleman. American born of Indian heritage Iyer has matured into one of New York’s premier pianists and in recent years he has begun to acquire an increasingly impressive international reputation, firstly through his work with alto saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthrappa and subsequently as the leader of his own trio.

Indeed Iyer’s ACT début “Historicity” (2009) recorded in the trio format with double bassist Stefan Crump and drummer Marcus Gilmore was a huge critical success (see review elsewhere on this site) winning many of the end of year polls, not least here in the UK. Iyer has played several successful gigs in the UK since then and his stock in this country is at all time high.

For his second project for ACT Iyer has taken on the challenge of the solo piano album and succeeded brilliantly. Since the success of Keith Jarrett’s “Koln Concert” back in the 1970’s the solo piano recording has been an increasingly popular mode of jazz expression. It’s not always been my favourite format, it can lead to self indulgence, and I also find that I miss the group interaction and the rhythmic and textural possibilities offered by the addition of bass and drums in the best of the contemporary piano trios.

However I have no such reservations with Iyer’s splendid new solo recording. There’s no flab on “Solo” but there is plenty of sparkling, fiendishly inventive playing. The sheer exuberance exhibited on some of the tracks is breathtaking but nevertheless this is a focussed and disciplined recording with eleven relatively short tracks. Iyer doesn’t waste an idea and the album’s fifty seven minutes just fly by.

The material covers many of Iyer’s bases with five originals- most of these scheduled back to back in the middle of the album- rubbing shoulders with jazz standards, pop tunes and explorations of tunes by Thelonious Monk and Duke Ellington, two of Iyer’s primary influences. There’s also a version of “Games” by Iyer’s former employer, saxophonist Steve Coleman. 

Iyer is a highly talented academic with a background in maths and physics and he brings his obvious intelligence and intellectual rigour to his piano playing. His music is harmonically and rhythmically adventurous, full of complex mathematical patterns, Iyer is a player who decries the very idea of keeping things safe. His music also draws on rhythms from his Indian background but without ever sounding even remotely Indian. Although obviously challenging to the player Iyer’s music has actually grown more accessible over the years and his fame has spread without any hint of his having dumbed down his music. For the listener “Solo” is an exhilarating roller coaster ride from start to finish. 

First up is Iyer’s version of the Michael Jackson hit “Human Nature”, later transformed into a jazz vehicle by the late, great Miles Davis.  Iyer describes his take on the song as a tribute to “The King Of Pop” and although he subtly expands and embellishes the tune he still retains the essential simplicity of the piece. It’s clearly a heartfelt homage to a sometimes much maligned figure.

Likewise his take on Thelonious Monk’s famous “Epistrophy” which he re-invents more radically, disguising Monk’s melody within dense,turbulent clusters of notes. It’s highly inventive and imaginative and one senses that Monk himself would approve of Iyer’s spirit of adventure.
Jimmy van Heusen’s “Darn That Dream” is the only “songbook” standard on the album. It’s a leisurely but rigorous exploration that allows for plenty of space between the notes, particularly early on in the piece.

“Black And Tan Fantasy” is the first of two Ellington homages with Iyer giving the old melody a contemporary twist whilst retaining the spirit of the original. 

We now come to a series of four Iyer originals scheduled back to back. The brief “Prelude:Heartpiece” is a shimmering, minor key curtain raiser. “Autoscopy”-the title refers to an out of body experience-seems to channel the spirit of Cecil Taylor, one of Iyer’s named influences.
It’s dense and turbulent, full of dissonant tumbling runs in the Taylor style but in Iyer’s capable hands, and leavened by more lyrical passages, it’s still intelligible to the average listener.

Despite the quiet beginning “Patterns” soon lives up to it’s name with vibrant interlocking melodies and rhythms. Despite its intensity it’s still eminently listenable and a good example of Iyer’s self taught but highly sophisticated harmonic and rhythmic conception.

“Desiring”, the final tune in this cycle shows a gentler side to Iyer’s playing but there’s still a sense of adventure about his playing in the more exploratory mid section.

The choice of “Games” by M-Base founder Steve Coleman acknowledges Iyer’s appreciation of the music of his former boss and “Fleurette Africaine” is the second of two Duke Ellington tributes. As before Iyer adds a contemporary feel to one of Ellington’s most beautiful melodies.

Finally we hear Iyer’s “One For Blount”, his tribute to the influence of the late Sun Ra (born Herman “Sonny” Blount). This brief homage is as intense and inventive as anything else on the album.

Iyer’s approach to the piano is genuinely even handed. The work of his left hand is as important as that of the right in this rhythmically complex music. Also the marvellous recorded sound brings out every detail and nuance of his playing. Iyer is quick to acknowledge the contribution of engineer Cookie Marenco to the success of this project. Although his playing is virtuosic Iyer always serves the tune, for all its complexity there’s no sense that he’s being flash or consciously showing off. Iyer’s complexities are born of a genuinely enquiring spirit

Iyer’s playing holds the attention from start to finish, never an easy thing to achieve on a solo piano record. “Solo” is beginning to gather further ecstatic critical plaudits in much the same manner as “Historicity”. The brilliant Vijay Iyer looks set to become an increasingly influential figure on the international jazz stage.

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