Vijay Iyer Trio
Williamstown Jazz Festival
Sterling and Francine Art Institute
May 6, 2009
Last year, Vijay Iyer produced the much acclaimed Tragicomic with a quartet that included alto saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa. But, for the Williamstown Jazz Festival, Iyer assembled a trio portion of the same group. Stephan Crump played the bass; Marcus Gilmore was on drums; and Iyer, on piano. The trio performed as if no part was missing. In fact, the trio communicated a solidity and strength in a performance of music that sits on the border between vanguard and mainstream, improvisational and fully composed.
The three gave a vibrant balanced performance: an Iyer original yet to be recorded as well as other Iyer originals; a Stevie Wonder tune; "Smoke Stack" by Andrew Hill; a Bernstein song from West Side Story; "Becoming" from the quartet album; and a riveting performance of Julius Hemphill's "Dogon A.D." Certainly the multi- faceted program gave the group a wealth of material to present, but the essence of the material was conveyed in the sheer musicality of it. How Iyer and his band fashioned it brought attention not to the tunes, but to the musical flow. No matter whether or not the flow was interrupted from time to time with abrupt changes in temperament or cadence: the substance of the pieces was shifted around within defined limits and it was those limits that allowed the substance to sparkle.
The music started slowly and elegantly as if everyone had exhaled and was ready to venture into territory that was both familiar and unknown. Iyer was careful to plot out phrases with his right hand as his left laid down quiet bass chords. Drummer Gilmore broke his silence with his brushes gracing the ride cymbal. As Iyer pressed through a crescendo, the bass introduced itself with a broad tonality. Crump plucked evenly in half the time that Iyer landed bass chords. There was no rhythm, just atmosphere. Then the tempo changed. Iyer drew tremolos and abstract phrasings out of his bag of sonorities; the chords he played with both hands collected and reshaped the sound entities he had laid out. The string bass provided the continuo, filling in when the piano and drums were briefly dis-engaged between phrases or licks. The snare was snapped, the sticks and cymbals were patterning the rhythm that cast a web over the two-handed piano syncopation, followed by near ostinatos from the treble to the bass notes, which were askew and edgy. Then the trio became one.
The adamant dynamics of the textures overtook the tunefulness, blossoming as a statement describing the music's motivation. It seemed that no dominating harmonic texture or outright rhythm carried the players. Iyer's fingering of the keyboard directed the bass and drums to the next step. The changes were numerous and clean-cut. Building up and taking down became a modus operandi to reach the source material. Each instrument planted detail after detail, from trills to phrases on the piano to half glissandos on the bass that countered the dryness of the snare syncopation with the piano; the group was telling the story of instrumental interdependence.
Only one piece, Iyer's "Helix," had been played but the band had revealed the stronghold of its integrity, its process of integration and its tendencies to lean off-center.
Iyer is unquestionably the leader of the band but his uncharacteristic looseness reared its head with this group. This is evident in the way he uncapped any kind of formula for his improvisations. Particularly in Bernstein's "Somewhere," Iyer hammered double-handed chords from the treble to the mid-zone of the keyboard; at this point, his body came off the piano bench and he drove into improvisation. He opened himself wide; his right shoulder and arm pulled back just before he plunged into moving his hand from one chord to another. He offset the resonance with trills. He moved up and down the keyboard with lithe fingerings and finally settled in the middle with a delicate drone. He was allowing bassist Crump to stand alone to sing in pizzicato and arco form. Gilmore bathed the music in soft, muted sibilance.
Overall, the pattern expectations from the piano were broken but not without serious insistence. How this affected Iyer's bandmates shone clearly when Gilmore soloed. Gilmore's drumming exhibited a centering, similar to Iyer's pianistic schema, especially in the way the bass drum steadily sounded. One of the drummer's exceedingly long sticks hit the center of the ride cymbal repeatedly, producing non-decayed ringing, prior to the sticks moving gracefully from the snare to the floor tom. The snare rattled as Gilmore now stayed on it, again persistently: one stick from the snare to the upper tom and then back again, again and again. Gilmore's back was straight as he looked straight ahead, his focus never faltering.
Crump emerged as an unalterable force for the crew. The personality of his playing illuminated its staunch reliability and clarity. When the bass pursued a tangent, it was not long before the piano and drums could fall back into the stream. It was as if the bass was a tangible and audible extension of the other two instruments. The tonality of Crump's bass strings was unusual; it projected depth and waves from the high register at the same time.
Iyer possesses a stunning ability to compose formally; his awareness of how sound works in layers, hooks and intercepts shows itself brilliantly in his music, especially in larger instrumental contexts. Yet, with the shift to the context of this particular trio, Iyer's amorphous spirit expresses itself obliquely, with finesse, a bit of mystery and completely on target.