From the time of his debut as a leader nearly twenty years ago on Architextures
(Asian Improv Records, 1996), pianist and composer Vijay Iyer has been a great experimenter. The Albany, New York native successfully utilized duplicated patterns and phrasing in a variety of settings from solo piano to ensembles. Advanced as his earlier techniques were, Iyer has continued to move forward and challenge himself, incorporating and manipulating decades of learning as his career progresses. At a given time his influences can be artistic, political or ethnic (or all of the above) but they don't overshadow a distinct personal style. Iyer's earlier groups provided a stepping off point for notable talents such as drummer Tyshawn Sorey
and saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa
, the latter being a strong element in many of Iyer's early successes.
With his long-standing trio-mates, bassist Stephan Crump
and drummer Marcus Gilmore
, Iyer has pulled from multiple references and time periods to create Break Stuff
. It is an album of deceptive complexity where absorbing melodies can mask the intricate inner workings of the pieces. As an example, "Mystery Woman" is at times minimal; Iyer's cascading chords or Crump's deep, woody pulsations suddenly become lost as Gilmore accelerates the pace pulling the trio into a complicated maze and then leading them out again. John Coltrane
's "Countdown"with a great solo from Gilmorefeatures irregular pacing and varying themes in an overall challenging structure.
Within the twelve compositions that make up Break Stuff
, there are a good number of pieces that exemplify Iyer's more lyrical side. A disconnected suite focusing on New York birds includes "Starlings," "Geese" and "Wrens" and features some striking individual work from the pianist. These pieces, however, are no less byzantine just below the surface, with "Geese," in particular, including some of the album's more dissonant playing. "Work" and "Hood" meld hard-bop elements with more progressive approaches, creating multiple layers of sound.
A Yale University graduate and Harvard professor, it seems inevitable that Iyer's music would reflect his academic pursuits, but it was more obvious with his earlier recordings. At times that could have a coldly mathematical effect on the music but of late Iyer has found a better balance between accessibility and theory. Mutations
(ECM, 2014), his solo piano, electronics and strings recording, may have been the musical catharsis that led to Break Stuff
Iyer's best trio album to date.