Vijay Iyer & Rudresh Mahanthappa: Raw Materials (2006)
Pianist Vijay Iyer and alto saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa are long-time collaborators. Mahanthappa's an important member of Iyer's quartet and vice-versa, and the two have produced a substantial body of recorded work together.
The two musicians' ten-year-old Raw Materials duo project, however, has remained officially undocumented until now. The important release of Raw Materials fills a glaring space in Iyer and Mahanthappa's discography. Beyond any historical importance, however, this thirteen-song album is both a fascinating look into a unique contemporary musical dialogue and almost certainly the most emotionally uncompromised major-label jazz release of the year.
Which isn't to say it's an off-putting recording. Initially, the pieces (compositionally split between the two players) sound, well, pretty. The paired modal deities of John Coltrane and McCoy Tyner still exert an influence on Iyer and Mahanthappa, but in this least-distilled of settings, the two really just sound like themselves. With no drums or bass, Iyer's hypnotic ostinati and Mahanthappa's searing ululationsand their collective incorporation of South Indian carnatic music into their vocabularyseem even more unlike anyone else than they do in less naked musical surroundings.
The two play with one mind throughout. Tempos adjust organically and microscopically moment to moment, producing a sense of rubato time, despite the music's rhythmic rigor. Repeated listenings exponentially undermine initial impressions: the music remains limpidly beautiful, but there's an uncommon overall sense of emotional ambiguity that's uncommonly unnerving. Moreover, this music, to its credit, does not work as background entertainment, despite its lovelinessthere's too much grief, too little unqualified release.
The six-note theme phrase of Iyer's "All the Names recalls "Experience from his 2005 CD Reimagining, mixing sweetness and heartbreak. As always with Iyer's piano work, there's a total absence of traditional comping, so that his and Mahanthappa's solos are divided and marked more by emphasis and volume than traditional constructs of lead melody and supporting accompaniment. Mahanthappa's "Forgotten System is like bop in its intricacy and speed, and unlike it in every other respectthere's no lack of intensity, but no standard climax or resolution either as the two musicians characteristically generate autonomous, simultaneous melody lines.
Much of this music has a through-composed feel, or at least a good portion of composed sections: Iyer's piano passages on the elegant "Remembrance are really more sonata-like than anything out of the jazz vernacular, and Mahanthappa's coiled, babbling lines on Iyer's "Frontlash veer into shiver-inducing unison phrases with Iyer, separate, then converge again. A close listen reveals something frightening and cruelly relentless about "Frontlash : the musicians' phrases feel as repetitively matter-of-fact as a list of war casualties, and just as imbued with the same grim, mundane horror.
This may not be the ideal starting point for listeners who are just discovering these musiciansIyer's Reimagining or Mahanthappa's Mother Tongue might be an easier initial taste. But very few recordings reveal such a richness or complexity of emotionand continue to reveal more of these qualities listen after listen.
Track Listing: The Shape of Things; All the Names; Forgotten System; Remembrance; Frontlash; Five Fingers Make a Fist; Inside the Machine; Stronger than Itself; Come Back; Fly Higher; Common Ground; Rataplan; Hope.
Personnel: Rudresh Mahanthappa: alto saxophone; Vijay Iyer: piano.