Fieldwork: Philadelphia, March 12, 2011

Dylan McGuire By

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Christ Church Neighborhood House Theatre
Philadelphia, PA
March 12, 2011

To describe the music of avant-garde jazz trio Fieldwork—featuring polymath/pianist Vijay Iyer, drummer Tyshawn Sorey and saxophonist Steve Lehman—as complex may be an understatement as broad as the group's dedication to exploring the far reaches of harmony, ensemble dynamics, and the physical capabilities of their traditional acoustic instruments. Fieldwork's ability to take a single, stark musical passage and build it and twist and transform it until it becomes a whirling dervish of sounds on top of sounds, rhythms on top of rhythms and raw emotion on top of raw emotion, is simply startling and is as uniquely compelling as the members themselves.

Fieldwork played a concert at Christ Church Neighborhood House Theatre in Philadelphia on March 12, 2011, to a capacity crowd in the gymnasium-style venue. The show was the first for the trio in about a year, said Iyer in an interview before the show. The individual members have been involved with various other projects and the concert was the apex of a three-night showcase. Friday night featured a performance of Sorey's composition, "For Kathy Change," and Sunday night was devoted to chamber works by Iyer and Lehman, performed by the JACK Quartet.

Fieldwork, in its current form, came together in December, 2004. It performs together about once a year and released its last CD, Door (Pi), in 2008.

"Each of us is pursuing our own individual projects, and it's made it hard for us to connect very often to do shows," said Iyer. "We still get to work on music together, so scheduling concerts can be hard. It's a good thing, though. We've all got to achieve a certain amount of momentum as leaders, which is, of course, great for us individually, but it ends up competing with the collective."

Iyer also commented that the members' individual growth has had a positive impact on the group's music.

"One thing that's been nice is that, as we've developed the ensemble language as composers, it starts to open up new possibilities as improvisers. We can now come together and improvise a half hour piece, and it has a lot of similar structural elements to what our compositions contain, because we're improvising not as soloists but as composers," said Iyer.

"For me, it's just great to hang with these guy,s and it inspires me to keep pushing ahead on my own tasks. And their music is really hard, so it challenges me as a player and to at least try to step up my game a little bit," Iyer continued.

More akin to a rock band than a jazz ensemble, Fieldwork's music is born out of group improvisations that are recorded and then developed and transcribed. It was interesting to see the members reading the complex and angular pieces from sheet music during the show.

The group's set was split into sections, and seemed to be four separate long pieces of music. However, they actually played eight separate compositions.

The show began with "Requiem/Ritual," which started quietly, with Iyer playing high notes on the piano, Lehman blowing sustained passages on the saxophone and Sorey playing cymbal swells and abrupt percussive noises. The music slowly transformed and built into chaos before settling on an odd time signature, circular sounding groove from the piano and drums.

It was remarkable to watch Sorey. He propelled the group's unique grooves forward in constant motion. It seemed as if he never repeated a pattern, constantly changing from half time to full time, adding complex polyrhythms and fills, and coaxing sound out of every inch of his traditional four piece drum kit in both conventional and highly unique ways.

The group then transitioned into "Ghost Time," introduced by Iyer's eerie, stark ostinato piano figure. Sorey entered, with cymbal swells and then tom fills, and Lehman bent discordant notes. The swirling mass eventually gave way to a loping, creeping piano figure over a busy double time drum groove that felt the most like traditional jazz that the audience was yet to hear that night.

Next up was "After Meaning," which was introduced with a solo by Lehman, where he bent notes and created unearthly breathy sounds on his saxophone, even conjuring unusual overtones on the usually monophonic sax. Iyer and Sorey come forward with their signature cyclical groove—Iyer sounding out chords and patterns ascending and descending the keyboard, and Sorey weaving in rim shots and high hat 16th note syncopation.

Lehman also exhibits a singular solo style, where he steers clear of fast legato runs and phrases in favor of offbeat stabs and long sustained notes. The group then entered into "Bend," another dark-sounding piece building off a stark piano figure from Iyer, followed by "Untitled (dotted quarter = 172)."

Sorey began his drum solo by rolling a plastic water bottle on the head of his snare drum, creating an unsettling crunching noise. He then proceeded to explore the boundaries of his acoustic drum kit, playing cymbals with the sides of his sticks, playing the drums with his fingers, and taking apart his high hat and playing the cymbals on his lap, before launching into a complex stream of rhythmic data.

The final set included "Allocentric," "Cyclic Construction" and "Rai." After a brief break, the group reentered to play "Infogee Dub," which built a driving funk groove off a low note that Iyer played by hand on his piano strings, before building into a more atmospheric feel and then launching into the signature Fieldwork rotating sphere of seeming musical chaos—all the while, somehow staying in lock-step with each other and stopping on a dime, before a transfixed (and perhaps a little dumbfounded) crowd responded with a rousing ovation.

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