The solo album has long been an obligatory statement of artistic mastery for jazz pianists. Though there have been slight tweaks to the format (see for instance Bill Evans' Conversations With Myself or Charles Mingus' Mingus Plays Piano), it remains relatively unchanged: equal parts original tunes and standards that the pianist can stretch and mold into entirely new creations. I can't think of any major pianist over the age of 35 who has not released a solo album, it seems like one cannot be taken seriously as a jazz master without taking the plunge into unaccompanied expression. In his electronic press kit accompanying the album, Iyer called the project "the ultimate reveal," and "the most personal statement I could possible issue." I couldn't agree more. It is also a big risk. Not even Sonny Rollins can escape accusations of a subpar solo album (I know, bad analogy, since Sonny is a saxophonist and the solo album hasn't hurt his legacy). Upon multiple listens, though, I don't think Iyer has to worry about that.
In the past decade, one additional component has made its way into the solo piano album: the pop cover.* On Solo, Iyer chose to lead the album off with his version of Michael Jackson's Human Nature. I'm not much of a Micheal Jackson fan (which apparently is heresy for someone of my age, but whatevs), and Human Nature is not one of the MJ tunes I would ever throw on my iPod, but I do enjoy Iyer's rendition.
Iyer commences with a dazzling version of Thelonious Monk's Epistrophy, trading in Monk's easy swing for an intense, driving syncopation. The melody of Epistrophy, featuring Monk's trademark chromaticism, has a touch of drama, but Iyer accentuates the dramatic. His left hand is especially heavy, while the right moves at a breakneck pace. It is by far the most exhilarating version of the tune I have heard, and repeated listens have not made the excitement fade. The first third of the album concludes with two more standards, the DeLange/Van Heusen classic Darn That Dream and Duke Ellington's showpiece for Bubber Miley and Tricky Sam Nanton, Black and Tan Fantasy. Black and Tan, with its plungered trumpet and trombone duet, is an especially odd choice for solo piano. How can a rigid instrument match Miley's manipulation of the trumpet which approaches the sound of the human voice? Iyer opts to play the tune as Ellington might have played it, in a dirge-like stride style reminiscent of Ellington's hero, Willie "The Lion" Smith. The result allows the tune itself to take center stage. Iyer is content to allow the harmonies shine, and his adherence to the stride style in his version manage to open up a rich world of improvisation without making the tune sound quaint.
Iyer bookends the album with another Ellington composition, Fleurette Africaine, followed by One For Blount, a blues dedicated to Sun Ra. As with Black & Tan Fantasy, Iyer plays the melody of Fleurette Africaine relatively straight, content to marvel at the beauty of Ellington's harmony. Iyer accentuates the ironic darkness of the melody, giving added weight to the tune. It is an underrated piece of the Ellington canon, and I'm glad Iyer decided to record it.
As captivating as his versions of other people's tunes are on Solo, it is Iyer's originals, covering the middle third of the album, which really shine. As with much of his other work, these tunes are highly improvisational but push the boundaries of postbop (in some cases ignoring them completely). Prelude: Heartpiece is an exploration of consonance and dissonance, comprised of a simple three-note phrase over a pulsing bass line, alternately building and releasing tension. It is followed by Autoscopy, a frantic composition of startling energy that is half Cecil Taylor energy, half ostinato. Iyer shocks you to attention, then lulls you into a peaceful slumber which segues into Patterns, the highlight of the album in my mind. Iyer slowly constructs the main theme, sustaining individual notes of the melody for the first 90 seconds before stating the melody. The independence of the right hand from the left is astonishing, against a sequence of triplets in the treble clef, Iyer plays a syncopated staccato rhythm with his left hand that both disrupts and propels the melody. This accompaniment persists in some form or another throughout the tune, grounding Iyers flights across the keyboard and giving a thematic unity to the eight-minute piece which sounds more like a multimovement suite than a single tune. At times calmly melodic, at others reflecting Iyer's scientific background through the exploration of fractured motifs, it is a microcosm of the album, fulfilling Iyer's characterization of "the ultimate reveal."
Bonus Material: EPK
Personnel: Vijay Iyer, piano
Track Listing: Human Nature; Epistrophy; Darn That Dream; Black and Tan Fantasy; Prelude: Heartpiece; Autoscopy; Patterns; Desiring; Games; Fleurette Africaine; One For Blount
*This is not entirely new, since pianists playing Tin Pan Alley tunes in the postwar years were playing pop tunes. In this context, a pop tune refers to a non-Tin Pan Alley song written in the recent past (e.g. Jason Moran's version of Planet Rock).