Whether through theatrical productions, poetry collaborations or standard jazz settings, Vijay Iyer uses music to comment on various aspects of contemporary culture. A pianist and composer of boundless intelligence and creativity, his appearance on a pair of excellent new releases displays his versatility in quartet and trio settings.
He's the leader on Tragicomic, a quartet set with drummer Marcus Gilmore, bassist Stephan Crump and alto saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa, whose chops and energy have made him an exciting voice and the perfect band mate for Iyer. From "The Weight of Things," where Mahanthappa is overdubbed on alto and mouthpiece, to the pulsating and angry "Macaca Please," a song born of an ethnic slur, Iyer leads this band through many moods. These are fine originals but it's the standards that are the highlights of the disc. Iyer completely deconstructs Bud Powell's "Comin' Up" by dissolving the spaces between the measures, accelerating the tempo and substituting a reggae backbeat in place of the author's subtle Latin one. And Iyer's solo version of "I'm All Smiles" is a delightfully eccentric waltz that sounds like Monk sneaking in chords while Bill Evans plays. "Becoming," with its vibrant Middle Eastern melody, ends the disc with a feeling of optimism.
Iyer plays in a slightly different idiom with the trio Fieldwork. The simpatico shared by Iyer, alto saxophonist Steve Lehman and the demonic Tyshawn Sorey on drums helps them thrive on the positive creative tension engendered during collective improvisation. Their disc, Door, has energy similar to that found on Tragicomic but with more edginess. Lehman is a high-energy altoist who, like Mahanthappa (his Fieldwork predecessor), uses his mouthpiece to produce startling effects ("Bend"). "Of," written by Sorey, crescendos into a frenetic repetition and spiral with Lehman the maelstrom. Sorey plays off-center accents on "After Meaning." Iyer's "Less" is what its implies, an open landscape dominated by Lehman's plaintive sax wail . "Cycle I" and "Cycle II," impressionistic and languid dialogues between Iyer and Lehman, are as much poems as songs. The musicians play almost independently of each other on Iyer's ironically titled "Balanced."
Iyer understands that the language of the world and what defines cultures is changing and the concept of borders of any kind, especially with music, is intolerable. He expresses his concerns through intelligent musical concepts and talent that, like the better world he imagines, has no limits.
Tracks and Personnel
Tracks: 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).
Tracks: Of; After Meaning; Less; Balanced; Bend; Cycle I; Pivot Point; Pivot Point Redux; Ghost Time; Cycle II; Rai.
Personnel: Vijay Iyer: piano; Steve Lehman: alto saxophone; Tyshawn Sorey: drums.