Vijay Iyer is an unusual pianist. Mainly self-taught (although that's hard to believe), his approach to music is bizarre, interesting and captivating at the same time : often halting, thundering, with odd rhythmic explorations. Probably his education as a scientist partly explains his approach (BS in physics and mathematics from Yale, a master in physics from Berkeley), and he also publicized scientific papers on the cognitive aspects of music and music perception. That in itself is of course not enough to make music of any quality, but it certainly helps in understanding his interesting musical universe. He is a cosmic Monk, a disciplined Cecil Taylor, an avant-garde traditionalist. Some of his work, including last year's "Still Life With Commentator" is kitsch or too far out for me to understand and appreciate, but his jazzy work with Fieldwork or with his own quartet are of the highest quality. To please us all, he just released two new albums simultaneously with both bands.
Fieldwork - Door (Pi Recordings, 2008) ****
This is the third Fieldwork CD, with Iyer on piano, Steve Lehman on sax and Tyshawn Sorey on drums, the latter replacing Elliot Humberto Kavee. The album further explores the music of its predecessors, full of intense rhythms, angular turns, pounding chords, abstract melodies and high intervallic short sax phrases. It sounds odd and funky at the same time. This is not easy listening, but very rewarding. The music is structured in mood and rhythm, but all the rest is improvised, I think. Sometimes the sound is eery, then thundering, but never within the framework of anything you've heard before, with the exception of other albums by Vijay Iyer himself. And that's probably the only comment you can give, that he keeps working on the musical avenue he created. But it remains worthwhile and it is really hard to describe. Take "Bend" for instance, which is a slower piece, but still with that halting rhythm, it's melancholy with some beautiful soloing by both Lehman and Iyer, but so without any fluidity, so abrasive, as if it were deliberate to create the contradiction of "abstract emotions" if such a thing exists. The next track "Cycle 1" starts even more down-tempo with just some piano chords and a slow sax blowing long notes over them, and despite the strong emotional component, you feel that the whole tune is perfectly timed and balanced. Those of you who heard the former Fieldwork albums, will certainly enjoy this one, and for those of you who didn't, don't wait any longer.
Vijay Iyer - Tragicomic (Sunnyside, 2008) ****½
Next to Fieldwork, Iyer has performed and recorded extensively with Rudresh Mahanthappa, his soul brother on sax, here joined by Stephen Crump on bass and Marcus Gilmore on drums. Iyer's musical approach does not change, yet the music is. I would say it is a little less adventurous, more "inside", a little warmer, but still full of rhythmic variations, unexpected twists and turns and intense, intense, intense. The title again reflects his leanings for paradoxes, the level were art surpasses mathematics, the level where contradiction is possible. Music brings joy and pain, can be fun and sad. As he writes in the liner notes : “In our perilous moment of global transition, we have everything to learn from this sensibility. A tragicomic outlook can ease our pains of metamorphosis and help us dream the next phase into being. That's how and why this music was made." The music is much more centered around melodic themes, and this in contrast to the "Fieldwork" album, and you would have the natural tendency to compare the other musicians, but I really can't. Mahanthappa is a fantastic saxophonist, with a different approach than Lehman, equally emotional, but rounder, darker. For contrast : next to the darkness and drama in the music, there is a lot of playfulness : in the tempo changes, in the little altered repetitions, in the musical inventiveness, which makes you smile because it's so clever, but greatly conflicts with the overall tone and still it matches. You get it? I know it's hard to describe, but that's the way it is, that's why this music is of real interest. It's hard to choose, but my preference would go this album, because it has a little more soul, a little more warmth, while still being adventurous and creative.
Listen and download Door on eMusic.
Listen and donwload Tragicomic on eMusic.