|Vijay Iyer at the 52nd Annual |
Monterey Jazz Festival (2009)
Photo by John Whiting
Iyer has played piano since childhood and has released 16 recordings, starting with Memorophilia (1995) and, most recently (not officially out yet), Accelerando (2012). His work has long been noticed by those in the know; he made his Walker debut in 2006, with his quartet (his working trio plus the exceptional alto saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa). He has received several prestigious commissions and awards. But in 2009, things seemed to reach critical mass, and suddenly everyone (at least everyone in jazz) was talking about him.
Historicity, out that year, topped the jazz polls. In 2010, Iyer released Solo and was named Musician of the Year by the Jazz Journalists Association. Tirtha (2011) brought a new trio into the spotlight, with tabla. In 2011, he was appointed Director of the Banff Centre’s International Workshop in Jazz and Creative Music; in January of this year, he won the Greenfield Prize. He’s on the cover of this month’s JazzTimes. If there’s justice in these things, he should be getting a phone call from the MacArthur Foundation someday soon.
Iyer’s music is cerebral, mathy, and dense, full of complex, asymmetrical time signatures and polyrhythms, unexpected harmonies, glittering cascades of notes, percussive chords, and extravagant beauty. It never goes where you think it will go. Which is not to say it’s intimidating or hard to listen to. It’s the opposite. Iyer wants to reach you, to connect with you. During a live stream of a masterclass he gave in December, he said to one student, “We’re all in this because artistically we have something to say. But it’s about giving someone an experience, not just having one.” You don’t have to “understand” jazz (whatever that means) to receive that experience and enjoy it.
I bought tickets to the Walker’s program, called “Vijay Iyer: The Sound of Surprise,” months ago, almost as soon as they went on sale. Because I write about jazz, or try, I had elaborate plans to thoroughly prepare by listening closely to all of Iyer’s recordings, reading interviews, searching the NPR archives for broadcasts about him (several are available), and so on. My good intentions dissolved as time passed. So I was well and truly surprised.
Thursday, March 1
The night began with the world premiere of a duo: the esteemed Wadada Leo Smith on trumpet, Iyer on piano, Fender Rhodes, electronic keys, laptop, and assorted electronics. When I read “world premiere,” I thought perhaps the Walker had told Iyer, “Pick someone you’ve always wanted to play with and we’ll make it happen.” In fact, Iyer was a member of Smith’s Golden Quartet (with John Lindberg and Shannon Jackson) from 2005-10, so they have known each other for years. (In his program notes, Iyer writes that the Golden Quartet “was for me an ongoing revelation about the possibilities for small group creativity, compositional form, counterpoint, texture, and space.”)
The duet was one long, uninterrupted piece of layered electronic sounds, dreamy, random-seeming notes from the Rhodes, blats and breaths from the trumpet, grooves rising and subsiding, chiming notes from the piano, what sounded like Indian horns, muted Milesian lines, and more I neglected to scribble in my notebook because I was...somewhere else. It was a musical conversation, intimate and intense. And perhaps an opening statement that “The Sound of Surprise” would not be neat or predictable.
After a brief break (during which the Rhodes, electronics, and cords were carted off and the Walker’s Steinway was moved to center stage), Iyer performed a solo set of extended versions of three tunes: Thelonious Monk’s “Work” and two original compositions, “Spellbound and Sacrosanct, Cowrie Shells and the Shimmering Sea” (from his first release, Memorophilia), and “Autoscopy” (from Solo). Introducing “Spellbound,” explaining the title, he joked, “When I made my first album, I thought it would be my last.”
The solo set was glorious and spellbinding. Far more evident than during the first set (where I found the electronics a bit distracting) was Iyer’s absolute mastery of the piano, notes and dynamics, and his familiarity with the canons, classical and jazz. In addition to Monk, I thought I heard Strayhorn, and Debussy in a series of dense but transparent chords. A repeating figure in the left hand carried me through “Spellbound.” “Autoscopy” could easily have come from the classical repertoire; it covers the whole keyboard and includes dynamic variations of great subtlety. Iyer can play thick, booming chords, lightning-fast runs, series of notes that seem utterly random (until you hear them again), and single notes so soft they cling to the edge of hearing, yet fill the room and hang in the air. I might have been listening to Brendel or Horowitz or Rubinstein. It was gorgeous. I wanted to cry.
Between “Spellbound” and “Autoscopy,” Iyer told the audience, “This is one of the most humbling experiences of my life.”
An intermission followed, and preparations were made for the trio, with Stephan Crump on bass and Marcus Gilmore on drums.
In an interview for the Strib, Iyer told Britt Robson, “What I like to do over the course of an evening is create an arc of experience… It is about the feeling of the space and the connecting to the audience, a very spontaneous, organic process, where I am constantly taking the temperature of the room.” He must have liked the temperature, because he gave us one of the most thrilling piano trio sets I have ever heard.
A piano trio is a magical thing. You can’t put any pianist with just any bass player or drummer. Brad Mehldau knows this; his five Art of the Trio recordings, made over a four-year period (1997–2001), were all recorded with bassist Larry Grenadier and drummer Jorge Rossy. (Starting with 2005’s Day is Done, Jeff Ballard has been the drummer; this trio releases its newest CD, Ode, later this month.) Crump was not (to my knowledge) a high-profile bassist until he joined Iyer; the two met and clicked in 1999. Gilmore (Roy Haynes’ grandson) came to the group in 2003. “Things have cracked open for us as a trio in the past three years,” Iyer said, understating. “The process of discovery is so rewarding.”
The set began with the title track from the new CD, Accelerando. From there, “Cardio” from Reimagining (2005), “Lude” (from Accelerando), “Optimism” (Accelerando), “The Star of a Story” (Accelerando), Iyer's skippy, lighthearted take on Michael Jackson's “Human Nature” (a tune Iyer is so fond of that he included it on Solo and again on Accelerando), and Andrew Hill’s “Smoke Stack” (Historicity, bonus track edition). Music of lacy intricacy, finding deep, roomy grooves, building to hair-raising crescendos.
For much of the set, I couldn’t take my eyes off Crump. He’s a fascinating player, energetic and expressive, with a beefy arco that threatens to saw the bass in half and other moves I’ve never seen, some aggressive, some delicate, some protracted (gliding the fingers of his left hand down the strings). He uses his bass as if it’s a box of a thousand crayons.
I couldn’t see much of Gilmore—from where I sat, his whole head was blocked by the ride cymbal—but his playing was electrifying, especially in his lengthy, polychromatic solo during “Smoke Stack.”
The set was tremendously exciting and completely absorbing. For periods of time, I forgot where I was.
Friday, March 2
The Walker’s performing arts curator, Philip Bither, introduced Iyer by quoting him: “The sound of someone reaching is a very compelling sound.” Iyer’s reach shows in his many and varied projects and collaborations. We heard two more tonight, and “The Sound of Surprise” could easily have filled out a week with others: pianist Craig Taborn, with whom Iyer has performed a series of duo recitals; the trio Fieldwork, with saxophonist Steve Lehman and drummer Tyshawn Sorey; Iyer’s quartet with Crump, Gilmore, and saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa; Raw Materials, a duo with Mahanthappa.
Friday began with the Mike Ladd + Vijay Iyer Duo, co-creators of two recordings to date: Still Life with Commentator (2007) and In What Language? (2004). Ladd is a poet-performer hip-hop MC storyteller, his instrument a compelling voice with hints of Tom Waits (and better articulation), his lyrics rhythmic, provocative, and conversational. Iyer’s setup repeated that of last night’s duo with Wadada Leo Smith: piano, Fender Rhodes, laptop, electronics.
We heard selections from Holding It Down, a new project commissioned by Harlem Stage based on the nighttime dreams of young American veterans of color from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Ladd had his own array of electronics, adding beeps, buzzes, and sometimes, it seemed, the sounds of wind and shifting sands. The second piece was a poem by Maurice Decaul, a poet and Iraq veteran who writes for the New York Times; the third a selection from In What Language, “Plastic Bag,” about a Senagalese street vendor. Solemn, hypnotic, chordy and beautiful.
The Iyer/Ladd collaboration is one I want to know more about. Increasing numbers of jazz artists are working with poets and poetry. Recent examples: POEMJAZZ, the new release from Robert Pinsky and Laurence Hobgood. Anne Mette’s Poetry of Earth, due out March 27. Helen Sung has a project in the works called Sung with Words.
Second set, solo piano. Iyer sat, took a breath, then announced “I’m going to play some standards,” as if that had suddenly occurred to him. He began with Bernstein’s “Somewhere,” recorded with his trio on Historicity. From a lengthy repeated beat played by the left hand, the melody emerged slowly and wistfully. Then Monk’s “Epistrophy” (Solo), yet another masterful Monk (after last night’s “Work”).
Iyer credits Monk as a major influence on his music. “There is immense power and careful logic in the music of Thelonious Sphere Monk,” he wrote in an essay for JazzTimes. The more Monk I hear Iyer play, the more often I think—he plays Monk like Monk would if he were a young man today. His deeply idiosyncratic yet respectful interpretations seem almost Darwinian.
Iyer swept his fingers across the keyboard as if deciding what to play next, then settled on “Darn That Dream” (Solo). A song I’ve heard a thousand times, but never before as if it were being played in church. Then a prickly thicket of notes out of which arose Coltrane’s “Giant Steps.” It was totally unexpected, an ambush and a thrill. Next, John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s “Imagine” (on Reimagining, played solo), but not the sunny, optimistic tune one often hears. This was the dark side of the story, full of thunder and tinged with desperation. Toward the end, it softened and lightened a bit, briefly.
“Since I never get to do this—I don’t usually have festivals—I’d like to play one more,” Iyer said, then gave us Ellington’s “Black and Tan Fantasy” (Solo). The left hand played more-or-less straight stride, the right wandered the keyboard. We were lifted up and out of the Walker's McGuire theater with its Steinway grand, and dropped into a roadhouse with a scarred and battered upright.
The third and final set: Tirtha (TEER-tha), Iyer’s group with Prasanna on guitar and Nitin Mitta on tablas. Before beginning to play, Iyer told the crowd, “The Walker Art Center is unlike anything I have encountered in the U.S. Sometimes I don’t even feel like I’m in the U.S. when I’m here…and then someone brings me a side of fries.”
That Iyer, an American-born son of Indian immigrants, would one day work with musicians from India seemed almost predictable. Would Tirtha sound rootsy or idiomatic? It doesn’t. “Heritage matters to me,” Iyer wrote in his program notes, “but I’ve steered clear of fusion experiments that attempt to mix styles…. When we first sat down to rehearse, we had a jolt of recognition. There was no question of ‘fusion,’ no compromise, no attempt to sound more or less ‘Indian’; just a fluid musical conversation among three individuals.” We heard “Tirtha,” the title track from the group’s debut CD, with an extended and tasty tabla solo, and “Tribal Wisdom,” with Prasanna performing konnakol, Indian classical vocal percussion. (Steve Smith sings konnakol; Prasanna was his teacher.)
“Abundance,” borrowed from the Carnatic raga “Rasikapriya," was languid and lovely and warm. Did Satie listen to ragas? I heard the Gnossienes. Then “Duality” and, to close, a composition by Prasanna, “Entropy and Time.” A long, luxurious guitar solo to open, a phrase that repeated, stopped, repeated a bit faster, paused, sped up, waited, raced. An ending that seemed like a final nod to Monk. All of the tunes in this set were from the CD.
Drive-by thoughts during Tirtha: 1. How could the guitar sound so much like an Indian instrument? Was Prasanna’s guitar specially strung, tuned, or altered so he could create those specifically Indian ornaments, bends, and slides? (I asked him later and he said no, it was just a regular guitar.) 2. Are all tabla players blissfully happy? Zakir Hussain seems to be, as does Mitta. I could watch the tablas forever. Dayan and bayan, wood and metal, goatskin and clay. 3. Tirtha vs. last night’s trio: Piano, percussion (tabla), strings (guitar) vs. piano, percussion (drums), strings (bass), but a completely different sonic world. Lighter and more playful.
I looked at my watch for the first time that evening; nearly 11. But the night wasn’t quite over. After an encore (“Gauntlet”), Iyer invited Mike Ladd back to the stage “to try something we have never done before.” Was this Ladd’s first time with Tirtha? He performed a poem he described as “a mashup of Buckaroo Banzai and the Firesign Theater.” It was poetry and hip-hop, aggressive and plaintive, with this refrain: “Where are we going? When are we leaving? Right now!”
And then the music was over. Two nights, five hours, and I would have stayed for more.
Some of what I’ve thought about since: When Iyer reaches, we reach back, because he makes it easy. His invitation to share in the experience is authentic and generous. He's a real collaborator; it’s never Iyer the star with back-up band, but a coming together of equals. If your focus shifts to the bass or the tablas, that's okay. Played by someone in the habit of reaching, who reaches so far and often, in so many directions and with such imagination and skill, jazz is broad and accepting, with porous boundaries. And robustly, passionately alive.