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Vijay Iyer at SFJAZZ

Harry S. Pariser By

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Vijay Iyer
SFJAZZ
San Francisco, CA
January 18, 19, 21, 2018

Vijay Iyer told a San Francisco audience at Herbst Theater that it is amazingly difficult to tour in the United States, by way of explaining why he did not perform in his former hometown more often. But, since, SFJAZZ opened their new building, the situation has evolved, and he has been a repeated guest at the facility.

This year Iyer was assigned four nights for which he selected four distinct formats. Thursday, the first evening, opened with him on the stage—clean cut and wearing his customary dark suit as usual—with a large photographic portrait of Geri Allen projected above the stage. . Explaining why he did not perform in his former hometown more often, Iyer explained that the entire evening was dedicated to the influential composer and pianist who died last year.

To celebrate Allen's dynamic and groundbreaking career, Iyer invited two of his favorite pianists to share the stage with him: Vancouver native Kris Davis has won kudos since her debut on the New York scene in 2001, while Craig Taborn, is an introspective pianist known for his work with saxophonist and band leader Chris Potter, the Art Ensemble Of Chicago's deceased master trumpeter Roscoe Mitchell, James Carter, and others.

On stage were two Yamaha grand pianos, sandwiched into each other. Iyer sat down at stage left while Davis sat across. They launched into the first piece as Iyer played in rapid fire pulses, while Davis added complimentary notes. Then the music slowed to a meditative pace, bringing up images of ripples in a stream. In the reflection from the piano, Iyer's hands appeared to float magically, as though disembodied.

Iyer entered a brief soliloquy as Davis "prepared" the piano with objects, making it ripe for percussive effects. Iyer played powerfully and fervently, with Davis riposting in turn. At times, it proved difficult to tell who was playing what note, as the sounds converged into a sonic whole.

Davis then began playing an electronic device, which she had on the left hand side of the keyboard, alternating it with nearby keys. Percussive playing closed the duet.

Next Taborn, clad in a blue shirt and green pants, came out and Iyer, after enthusiastically welcoming him, exited, Davis then switched to the other piano and their duet commenced. When Taborn played a short riposte, Davis countered. Taborn pranced on the keys, Davis replied with shrill tones; Taborn turned quiet, then meditative, his head bent down in concentration. In another rapid fire excursion, he let loose on the 88s. He played with his arms spread-eagled as Davis rolled her fingers across the keys, creating waves of sound. Taborn leapt partially from his bench as he showed off his pyrotechnic prowess. Then, Davis massaged her keys, while Taborn played the right side of the piano melodiously. Taborn switched to stage left as Iyer entered and Davis exited. Beginning their repartee, the duo played entire tonal ranges in tandem, creating dreamy effects. It was hard to tell which sound comes from which piano. At one point, Iyer turned his head to the right at an angle to the keys. Then, Iyer withdrew his hands from the keys, and it was over.

Then, Taborn mined the strings with his hands, conjuring up subtle tonalities. Iyer, on the opposite side, bent over in concentration, leaning back majestically, as a seated Taborn dispensed tonalities. Taborn switched to rapid fire percussion, and Iyer matched him in turn. A well deserved standing ovation followed. Davis returned from the seat she has taken in the audience to take a bow with the two. It had been a very special evening.

The next night saw Iyer return with the two members of his trio who have helped to shape his sound: Curly haired bassist Stephan Crump and drummer Marcus Gilmore. Facing the audience, Iyer inquired "Has the government shut down yet?" The evening included a number of unnamed improvisations, including a lovely rendition of Michael Jackson's "Human Nature." Iyer ponderously mused on his piano; Crump offered a thoughtful bass solo; Gilmore fitted one white metal rim insert in his snare, then another and then tapped one with a single hand. The unit performed as one highly charged energy relay team. Bass and piano played a duet before the trio turned meditative.

The second set began with a delicate piano solo leading into the trio. Iyer played with one hand arched. Then the drums dropped out. Gilmore bobbed his head meditatively before coming back in with sticks, while Crump slowed down with bowing. A very drawn out version of "Human Nature" followed included an intent drum solo with the sticks solidly on the drums; the pace was slow interspersed with rapid. Another number led to a highly charged one, while an excited audience member enthused " go" throughout. At 9:45 PM, Iyer called the band: "Yours truly, Vijay Iyer on piano." After talking up his CDs, he said "We could party all night" and "We love you. Thank you San Francisco." The soft and melodic encore saw Gilmore painting pastels with his brushes while Crump bowed meditatively.

Sunday night, Entitled "Vijay Iyer and Thums Up," brought musicians from the South Indian diaspora to the stage, was more experimental, as Iyer admitted the audience. For the occasion, Iyer had added a Fender Rhodes and a synthesizer to his customary Yamaha grand. Introducing guitarist Rafiq Bhatia, Iyer referred to him as "legendary," clarifying by adding "legendary if you are under 30." Bhatia is first-generation American of East African Indian descent , whose musical influences include ex-teacher Billy Hart.

The evening began with vocals from Punjabi-born female songstress Arooj Aftab. Bhatia fingered his blue and white electric guitar, using his foot pedal and the area surrounding his guitar's tailpiece to create tonalities.

After a half hour of this, Aftab left the stage and jazz drummer and Seattle native Kassa Coverall entered, along with rapper Himanshu Suri (formerly of Das Racist, where he was known as "Heem") who wore an elaborate and colorful patchwork jacket, white tee shirt, and jeans with their cuffs rolled up. Iyer set up a synthesized rhythm, which he maintained, while keeping his left hand on the piano keys. Suri's raps included lyrical references such as "super powers believing powerful delusions" and "Hopefully no martial law." Other topics took in the police ("pigs are haram"), drones ("I hate that drone.") and the more saccharine ("Chocolate chip cookie in a sugar bowl), as well as social problems ("I used to play basketball; now I'm drinking"). This was accompanied by Bhatia 's improvised guitar, Overall's drumming and Iyer on Fender Rhodes and piano. Aftab later returned to add harmonies. A standing ovation brought them back to conclude Iyer's first residency at SFJAZZ.
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