Vijay Iyer Trio
One of the major undercurrents in the recent Jazz Now discussion was the thorniness inherent in addressing a Jazz Tradition. For those of us, like myself, who consider jazz to be an oral tradition, it follows that the best jazz can both reference (and even revere) the past while situating itself firmly in the present and offering a jumping off point for the future (hence the oft-cited Ralph Ellison quote, "One of the chief values of living with music lies in its power to give us an orientation in time").
But referencing the past while making a statement of the present is not so easily achieved, which makes Vijay Iyer's latest effort, Historicity, all the more impressive. Iyer and his long-standing trio featuring bassist Stephan Crump and drummer Marcus Gilmore tackle a number of tunes already familiar to listeners, as well as a couple of originals recorded on earlier Iyer albums. While the song selection is bold (including covers of the M.I.A., Ronnie Foster, and Leonard Bernstein), the execution makes the album seem less like a novelty and more like the work of artists who are genuinely interested in finding out whether great music retains its endearing qualities when recontextualized.
And the answer, in this case, is assuredly affirmative. The trio effectively creates little worlds in each track on the album, from the ethereal mist of the title track to the expansive voids of Somewhere to the jagged iciness of Dogon AD. On the latter and Mystic Brew as well, Iyer, Crump, and Gilmore show the limitless possibilities inherent in a single rhythmic motif. The music on the album reflects a trio with a very detail-oriented and well-conceived purpose of vision. Such planning often yields fruitful results.
Perhaps predictably, Iyer has run into some unnecessary criticism surrounding his intellectualized approach to jazz. One recent album reviewer, writing for All About Jazz, complained that the "miasma of cerebralization" surrounding Iyer's music is irritating, and that Iyer's liner notes,1 which quote the Italian philosopher Antonio Gramsci, "rings alarm bells." However, these complaints, which were limited to Iyer's liner notes, and not his music, ring hollow upon listening to the album. Iyer is an incredibly thoughtful musician who pours a lot of intellectual energy into his music (his recent interview on The Jazz Session is a great example, as is this article he wrote for the Guardian about Fibonacci numbers and his rendition of Ronnie Foster's Mystic Brew). However, his music retains a deeply intuitive sense of rhythm which prevents things from getting too sterile. Indeed, if you listened to the entire album before reading the liner notes, the "miasma of cerebralization" critique would likely make little sense.
Video Content: The Vijay Iyer Trio play's M.I.A.'s Galang:
BONUS MATERIAL: Vijay pops in at Destination: OUT to post two live recordings of his trio from February. Many thanks to Vijay and the Jeffs for making that happen.
Track Listing: Historicity; Somewhere; Galang; Helix; Smoke Stack; Big Brother; Dogon A.D.; Mystic Brew; Trident: 2010; Segment for Sentiment #2
Personnel: Vijay Iyer, piano; Stephan Crump, bass; Marcus Gilmore, drums
1Iyer posted the full text of his liner notes in the comment section of this review.