Although Vijay Iyer has a Ph.D. in music and cognitive science, his dazzling new CD, Panoptic Modes
, shows the New York-based pianist more focused on spiritual concerns than purely intellectual ones.
Melding Vedic chant and South Indian rhythms with the more obvious influences of Thelonious Monk and Bud Powell, Iyer creates a unique and vibrant sound, but one that's highly accessible and solidly within the progressive end of the jazz spectrum. The most direct comparison that comes to mind is Randy Weston (high praise indeed) for his deeply spiritual bent, openness to diverse musical traditions and a strong indebtedness to Monk's piano and compositional technique. That debt to Monk is made clear in "Circular Argument," a trio piece dedicated to the bebop master.
Iyer's main foil is alto saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa, whose lively improvisations lead the quartet into some dizzying stratospheres. Drummer Derrek Phillips and bassist Stephan Crump also do an outstanding job keeping this challenging music flowing.
Several of Iyer's 11 orginal pieces here are meditations on specific spiritual or political themes - like "Numbers" (for Mumia), dedicated to Mumia abu-Jamal, and "One Thousand and One," a plaintive tune offered as a "plea for peace." How the music and the messages relate is probably best explained by the artist himself - which he does, briefly, in the album's liner notes. Suffice it to say this is a young musician of serious intent and significant accomplishment whose interests extend far beyond the keyboard. It will be fascinating to see where his journey leads.