There is much that is exciting about pianist Vijay Iyer and almost as much that is irritating. The excitement is in the music and the irritation in the miasma of cerebralization that surrounds it. The most recent instance of the latter comes with the packaging for Historicity
. Any album title which requires a fairly lengthy liner note to explain it, and which starts, elliptically and gratuitously, with a quote from Italian philosopher Antonio Gramsci's The Prison Notebooks
, rings alarm bells. Particularly when the given explanation boils down to nine words of plain English: we are all part of the tide of history. And all this to validate the inclusion of six cover versions and two previously recorded originals.
As Iyer and his publicists frequently remind us, before becoming a full-time musician Iyer studied mathematics and physics at Yale and UC Berkeley. The guy has smarts; can we please move on now? For if he isn't careful, Iyer is going to match reed player Anthony Braxton's bone-dry academic posturing and in doing so set himself apart from the sizable audience his music could reach.
That's Iyer's call, of course, though it isn't one his new record company, ACT, is likely to encourage. Since the unexpected, early death of Esbjorn Svensson, the German label has, presumably, been looking around for a piano trio to replace Svensson's E.S.T., and in Iyer's group with bassist Stephan Crump and drummer Marcus Gilmore it may have found it. Like Svensson's, Iyer's music is sonically powerful, is performed with gospel-like intensity, is aware of other styles of modern music, and is almost always propelled by simple motor rhythms, even when using fairly complex time signatures. His music rocks, just like Svensson's did. (Or as Iyer has put it elsewhere: "it's all about letting rational structures become intuitive.")
The highlights of the hugely enjoyable and thoroughly accessible Historicity are probably the covers, though Viyer's throbbing title tune, the album's opener, is a contender. Leonard Bernstein's "Somewhere," which follows, is pulled and stretched by Iyer's percussive combination of triple and quadruple time over Crump's solid, four in the bar, walking bass. A great tune given an irresistible recalibration. Next up is hip hop artist M.I.A.'s "Galang," with the appropriate subtitle "Trio Riot Version," which truly inhabits the original and cranks the handle further.
Other covers are Andrew Hill's "Smoke Stack," Stevie Wonder's "Big Brother," Ronnie Foster's "Mystic Brew," andhighlight among highlightsJulius Hemphill's "Dogon A.D.," which, if its composer had in mind the mysterious music and masks tradition of the West African Dogon people, hits the spot precisely.
A galvanizing album. No further explanation necessary. Please.