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Vijay Iyer: Tragicomic

Lyn Horton By

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Expressing everything that is possible at one point in time is how art comes about. For visual artists, the limitations of the chosen medium frame and freeze the passion of the art. For musicians, the parameters comply with a different set of conditions. Music is concerned with time and the kinds of changes that occur within it. How those changes affect the listener complete a never-ending cyclical relationship.

Nowhere is this relationship clearer than on pianist Vijay Iyer's self-produced Tragicomic. Playing all of Iyer's compositions, the quartet handles the material as it was created for them—with clarity, lushness and intelligence.

The opening resembles peering into the landscape between the landing place of Dorothy's house in Oz and the Emerald City, because as soon as the overture has passed, a daring journey begins. The fluid scalar runs of the piano transform into hammered chords and the alto stops sounding wistful and imprints its edgy thematic signature on the music. Iyer proceeds with an active differentiated improvisation; Altoist Rudresh Mahanthappa inherits that solo space, infusing it with multiple high energy arpeggios. Drummer Marcus Gilmore floods the rhythmic background from the outset with a progressively larger sound that peaks in crashing cymbal sibilance. Stephan Crump begins with a slow arco and then expands his bass territory to form a close alliance with the piano's bass chords. The piano and alto synchronize briefly and then shut down to move quickly into "Aftermath."

Emphatic trills, seemingly endless ostinatos, beautifully articulated key shifts and uplifting melody continue to etch out an incontrovertibly rich pianistic surface which leads the quartet down avenues that sometimes simply fade away ("Comin' Up," "Without Lions," "Threnody"). Yet, the contrasts between fiery travels and smoother, less agitated, sometimes electronically charged motion imbues the recording with dramatic dynamic.

The interaction between the alto and the piano is swollen with brotherly allegiance. The entrance of the alto often serves as a voice that evokes striving and persistence with torrents of sorrow entangled in its tone ("Aftermath" and "Threnody").

The bass and drums can paradoxically mollify and sweeten the drive of the piano. But, Gilmore cracks the whip of the snare on "Age of Everything" and "Machine Days," and maintains a solid rhythmic grind behind the initial piano dissonance of "Window Text," where Crump's pizzicato speaks broadly, openly and easily takes the lead. Overall, Crump's gestures align supportively with the piano.

Iyer's expertise in composition shines on Tragicomic. His capacity to apply himself in various musical contexts is without parallel and this particular recording typifies the tight programmatic design that threads throughout his work with Mike Ladd. However, Iyer has gone a step further, beyond the potentially rigidifying edge of his academic and compositional experience; he has exposed his vulnerability... his human side. For it is compassion that joins each note of "Becoming," and the notion that its composer can weep is probably not far from the truth.


Track Listing: The Weight of Things; Macaca Please; Aftermath; Comin' Up; Without Lions; Mehndi; Age of Everything; Window Text; I'm All Smiles; Machine Days; Threnody; Becoming.

Personnel: Vijay Iyer: piano; Rudresh Mahanthappa: alto saxophone (1-3, 5, 6, 10, 11); Stephan Crump: bass (1-8, 10-12); Marcus Gilmore: drums (1-8, 10-12).

Title: Tragicomic | Year Released: 2008 | Record Label: Sunnyside Records

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