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Vijay Iyer Trio



by Ian Mann

September 09, 2009


One of the most distinctive piano trio records I've heard

Pianist Vijay Iyer has created a considerable impression on the international jazz scene. Born in the USA of Indian parents he is based in New York and has played with many of that city’s most important musicians. His first high profile gig was as the regular pianist for M Base saxophonist Steve Coleman’s group and he has also worked with Roscoe Mitchell, Amiri Baraka, Butch Morris and hip hop artist Mike Ladd. 

Iyer has released some twelve albums as a leader since he made his recording début in the 1990’s but this is his first for ACT. Many of his previous albums have been cut with alto saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa, a musician with the same Indian/American cultural background as himself.

Iyer is a deep thinker about music and life in general, as his notes to “Historicity” reveal. He originally studied mathematics and physics at Yale and UC Berkeley before turning to music full time with the offer from Coleman. Iyer brings the same intellectual rigour to his music which is frequently intense and demanding, full of dense clusters of notes and complex harmonic and rhythmic ideas.

Iyer is also acutely conscious of his trio’s role in the context of the Asian and African diasporas (“the Brown and Black Atlantic” as he puts it) and brings these influences to bear in his music. He is also aware of his position in jazz history with Thelonious Monk and Andrew Hill acknowledged influences, and also of his own musical past, he revisits two of his own early compositions here. This awareness of history and his place in it goes some way to explaining the title of this album which also explores work by other composers such as Hill, Julius Hemphill, Ronnie Foster, Stevie Wonder, Leonard Bernstein and M.I.A. It’s an eclectic mix and Iyer and his trio very much place their own stamp on the material, a process Iyer likes to describe as “versioning”. 

For listeners used to hearing European piano trios the first thing that is striking about “Historicity”  is how different Iyer’s trio sounds. There is little of the classical influence that can be heard in many European groups, less Romanticism and less use of space. Iyer’s music is busy, the ideas tumble out of him and every space seems to be filled. Iyer likens it to stepping into a torrent, the music is like “water over rocks” with a “swirl of undercurrents”. I’ve witnessed Iyer’s intensity first hand having seen him at Brecon Jazz Festival a few years ago as part of a quartet nominally led by Rudresh Mahanthappa. It was impressive stuff, full on and slightly intimidating but the power of the music left a lasting impression.

Crump and Gilmore are the regular members of Iyer’s trio and the interplay between the three is instinctive and impressive. At times they almost sound like a larger ensemble such is the intensity and density they create. Gilmore is a dynamic drummer who conjures a huge range of sounds from his kit. His dialogue with the pianist is particularly impressive on the opening title track from the pen of Iyer. Crump’s fluid bass is the glue that holds it all together and prevents the music from flying apart as if by centrifugal force.
The trio certainly put their own stamp on Bernstein’s “Somewhere” giving it a wholly edgy, contemporary feel with jagged phrasing, artful dissonance and complex, insistent rhythms. The way they dive deep into the architecture of the song sometimes recalls Brad Mehldau’s explorations but if anything Iyer and his colleagues are even more radical.

The trio’s take on M.I.A.‘s hit “Galang” is subtitled “Trio Riot Version”. Piano, bass and drums replace the tablas, synthesisers and drum machines of the original. Pounding and catchy this is thrilling and eminently accessible stuff.
Iyer’s “Helix” lowers the temperature slightly, it begins as an abstract ballad and for the first time the group almost sounds as if it could be European. However as the piece grows in intensity and the space begins to fill the trio put their unique stamp on the proceedings. Gilmore’s drumming builds from a whisper to a whirlwind.

Andrew Hill’s “Smoke Stack”  is also rigorously explored by the trio. I must confess that as with many of the “versions” here I’m not familiar with the original but once again this seems full of complex but interesting ideas and the interplay between the three is almost telepathic.
Stevie Wonder’s “Big Brother”  is delivered in percussive, grooving manner with Crump on splendidly dark arco bass. If E.S.T. were American maybe they’d have sounded something like this.

Crump also utilises the bow on the late Julius Hemphill’s dramatic and episodic “Dogon A.D.” Driven by Gilmore’s relentless rhythms this is one of the album’s stand out cuts. Both the title and the playing conjure up visions of some future dystopia, this is piano trio music of almost apocalyptic power. 
By comparison Ronnie Foster’s “Mystic Brew”, here in a “Trixation Version” seems almost simple but complex rhythms, grooves and time signatures soon emerge as the piece builds. As a former mathematician Iyer is interested in the relationships between numbers of music and this fascination is apparent throughout the album.

The album ends with Iyer re-visiting two pieces of earlier work. “Trident:2010” features the excellent Crump as a pizzicato soloist, one of his few excursions into this area as largely the trio is all about group interaction. Iyer himself is as torrential as ever ,shadowed by Gilmore’s astonishing , ever unfolding drumming. Like Iyer Gilmore is full of ideas and conjures a stupendous range of sounds, colours and rhythms from his kit. His is a virtuoso performance throughout the album. 

Crump’s bass opens “Segment For Sentiment # 2” the surprisingly delicate and lyrical (if a little abstract) closer.

“Historicity” is one of the most distinctive piano trio records I’ve heard. It’s not always an easy listen, Iyer’s intensity can sometimes be forbidding, but it’s a very rewarding one. There are ideas to burn here, all executed with tremendous technical skill by three virtuoso musicians who are still expanding the possibilities of the piano trio. This is an album that reveals more with each listen and can be recommended to all adventurous jazz listeners.

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