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Vijay Iyer: Reimagining

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New York pianist/composer Vijay Iyer continues his string of remarkable recordings with his Savoy debut, Reimagining, his first release with his quartet since 2003's Blood Sutra. I hesitate to call this new CD his most mature statement to date, since Iyer sounded pretty fully-formed—and hardly callow—on his 1995 debut, Memorophilia. But I'll say it anyway: Reimagining might not reach the searing highs of Blood Sutra, but it substitutes an organic, austere consistency of vision and accomplishment that's simply stunning.

The quartet of Iyer, altoist Rudresh Mahanthappa, bassist Stephan Crump, and new drummer Marcus Gilmore achieves an internal sympathy and rapport that's unsurpassed by any working jazz group today. Gilmore doesn't hit his drums as hard as the band's previous drummer, Tyshawn Sorey, but he plays with a deftness and precision that make him ideal for this band.

"Precision is a key term. Iyer writes pieces of considerable complexity, especially rhythmically (the time signature of, say, "Revolutions defies casual analysis), suggesting the alternating counts of South Indian classical music or the jazz of Steve Coleman, depending upon your outlook. But Iyer's work has a tempering emotional content that separates him from the majority of his New York peers; it's technically demanding, but it serves a deeper muse of pure feeling.

Writers have compared Iyer and Mahanthappa's rapport to that of McCoy Tyner and John Coltrane, and the music is often built around ostinati and modes. But there's an equality of status between Iyer and Mahanthappa, and a uniqueness of attack, that render the comparison helpful but insufficient. No two jazz players today work together with such unified purpose.

"Song For Midwood is a modal piece with a deliberate, measured feel, built around a bass pulse and a tabla-like Gilmore drum pattern. Iyer's solo ripples across measures and octaves and then Mahanthappa increases the heat with characteristically dense clusters and alternatingly sparse, moving notes. One can only savor Iyer's penchant for playing a vamp phrase, then instantaneously swerving from it into glorious improvisation, then returning to it—and his accompaniment to Mahanthappa's soloing feels like the rich fruit of years of collaboration.

"Inertia is one of several tunes in which Mahanthappa lays out, and it contains some of Iyer's most heartfelt playing over a hypnotic seven-count cymbal pulse. Iyer's piano has a touch of Debussy or Satie here; it's extremely beautiful, yet ominous, almost pained—he seems to be fighting through a wall of obstacles. "Experience builds upon a mandala-like modulating piano ostinato and culminates in a Mahanthappa solo in which he rides the song's modes—and Crump and Gilmore's crescendoing accompaniment—like a surfer on incoming waves.

This album is full of loveliness, but it feels hard-earned, worked through. It closes with a solo piano cover of John Lennon's "Imagine, where Iyer alters the chorus to avoid the release or resolution of the original, as if to say that Lennon's utopia would be a conditional one, and a result of great striving—a mature statement indeed. Just like Reimagining.

Track Listing: 1. Revolutions 2. Inertia 3. Song For Midwood 4. Infogee's Cakewalk 5. The Big Almost 6. Cardio 7. Experience 8. Composites 9. Phalanx 10. Imagine

Personnel: Vijay Iyer: piano; Rudresh Mahanthappa: alto saxophone; Stephan Crump: bass; Marcus Gilmore: drums

Title: Reimagining | Year Released: 2005 | Record Label: Savoy Jazz

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