It's hard to write about the collaborative trio Fieldwork. On their sophomore CD, Simulated Progress, pianist Vijay Iyer, altoist Steve Lehman, and drummer Elliot Humberto Kavee play a dazzling, intrepid sort of new jazz that's as deeply interactive as anything you're likely to hear this year. This is Lehman's first CD with the band (he takes the place of tenor player Aaron Stewart) and Kavee's last (his chair having been filled since this recording by Tyshawn Sorey), so Simulated Progress will have to suffice as the sole document of this version of Fieldwork.
If there must be only one album from this incarnation, so be it: it's above reproach. All three players contribute compositions, but this is music from a group mind; Fieldwork's very much conceived as a band, and many hours of rehearsal have produced an unwavering unity of sonic purpose and attack that iswell, hard to describe. It defies easy description because, while these are compositions that incorporate improvisation, the results don't fall into jazz precepts that facilitate facile definition. There are no ballads; nothing swings, at least in the conventional way that we regard as "swing. One musician doesn't comp over the solo of another.
Kavee's "Transgression is a case in point. One can remark upon Iyer's ominous piano ostinati or Lehman's dreamlike alto melodies, but there's something gnomically cryptic and elusive about the overall result. I've heard this song dozens of times and I'm still not altogether sure what it is, except that it's certainly good. There's an overall sense of determination to avoid prescribed, established musical roles and statementsno one's playing licks here.
Perhaps more accessible, at least to description, is the carnatic bombast of Iyer's "Headlong, with its push me-pull you of interlocking time signatures and epic Indian intervals, or the wrenching, mathematical avant-boogie of Iyer's "Telematic, where Kavee's drums evoke John Bonham on Led Zeppelin's "Trampled Under Foot (you've never heard this much kick drum on a jazz record before), Iyer's piano and Lehman's alto riding Kavee's thunder like determined charioteers pulled by strong but dangerous horses.
Iyer's "Transitions begins with Lehman's keening, reverb-enhanced alto, Iyer's hypnotic space ostinato and Kavee's chiming cymbalsvery much Sun Ra Arkestra territory. The group then launches into a sideways, crablike tarantella that's as polyphonic as it is polyrhythmic, with Lehman (now on lacerating sopranino) and Iyer soloing simultaneously.
Stuff like this feels genuinely dangerous. Like three mountain climbers roped together, this trio traverses musical precipices that are real, immense, and perilous. Yet there's a restraint and control that make this in many ways the antithesis of free jazz, as evidenced on Lehman's "Trips, where Lehman plays as many simple, almost static phrases over Kavee's robotic, sonically altered snare and cymbals as he does his more flamboyant trademark skittering lineshe's serving the song and the music, not himself.
The greatest compliment that can be paid to Simulated Progress is that there is nothing else out there that sounds like it. This is difficult music. In its risk-taking, fragility, and fearlessness, it's also very thrilling.
Personnel: Vijay Iyer: piano; Steve Lehman: alto and sopranino saxophone; Elliot Humberto Kavee: