Vijay Iyer Trio: Washington, DC, April 30, 2011

Franz A. Matzner By

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Vijay Iyer Trio

Sixth & I Historic Synagogue

Washington, DC

April 30, 2011

Sponsored by the Washington Performing Arts Society, pianist Vijay Iyer's concert placed his innovative trio in the sumptuous setting of Washington, DC's Sixth & I Historic Synagogue. The domed ceilings and intricate décor provided an appropriate backdrop to Iyer's powerfully evocative, enormously creative musical explorations, the serenity and seriousness of the space reflecting the complexity and spiritual clarity of Iyer's music as the repurposing of the building mirrored Iyer's ability to be modern, while maintaining continuity with multiple musical lineages.

Much has been written about the kaleidoscopically challenging and innovative compositional achievements, as well as the technical virtuosity, that can be found on Iyer's recordings. But audience members unfamiliar with Iyer and his trio's live performances may not have been prepared for the sheer excitement that Iyer, bassist Stephan Crump and drummer Marcus Gilmore were able to produce live.

No recording can capture the abundance of force behind this trio's playing, or the textural density developed by the band—in large part due to Crump's astounding inventiveness, particularly when bowing. In fact, Crump may very well have stolen the show, whether delivering extended solos, the notes blossoming like flowers in a hanging garden, or introducing layers of sonic texture via bowed glissandi. Add to that Gilmore's rhythmic dexterity and subtle manipulation of his set's tonal dimensions, and the Iyer Trio's live material took on a power almost three-dimensional in nature. Each tune unfolded into an articulated structure, its architecture defined by Iyer's complex lines, the space delineated by Gilmore and Crump's throbbing rhythms; the whole adorned by the dramatic, multicolored tapestries of the bands dynamic interplay and soaring solos.

Packed into the historic synagogue's pews, audience members were treated to an impressive musical array covering new originals, pieces drawn from the groundbreaking Historicity (ACT, 2009), reworked jazz standards, and thoroughly deconstructed pop tunes. The trio opened the set with a gorgeous rendition of a tune by Flying Lotus , the name of which, humorously, none of the band members could remember. Centered on a simple, ethereal melody floating like a memory just out of reach, the piece built slowly to a powerful crescendo that set the stage with an intensity that remained for the rest of the extended concert.

One thrilling tune after another followed, as Iyer, Crump, and Gilmore adeptly broke down and reconstituted each piece's component parts in what seemed the creative equivalent of a perpetual motion machine. Tunes like Bud Powell's "Coming Up," the deconstructed funk of "Dogon A.D.," and the head-long "Cardio" blistered with dark, tumultuous energy, while the poignant "Ascent" and Iyer's solo homage to Duke Ellington )(a DC native) displayed a contrasting, patiently developed quiescence. The trio was equally successful repurposing Stevie Wonder's "Big Brother," done as an encore, as it was converting Michael Jackson's "Human Nature" into an uplifting celebration.

As a pianist, Iyer has developed a style so thoroughly his own it is difficult to pinpoint antecedent or influence, a rare accomplishment even in a genre often defined by just this aspiration. As a composer, he has pushed the edges of modern jazz's contours. And as a bandleader, Iyer has made the most intelligent choice of all: he has surrounded himself with artists of equal ingenuity, grace, and distinction. The most marked feature of the evening's performance was the stature of each performer in his own right and the fluidity with which the trio as a unit worked together to create its distinctive sound.
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