Click here to [close]

Friday, September 8, 2017

Vijay Iyer Sextet – Far From Over (ECM, 2017) *****

By Troy Dostert

Although pianist Vijay Iyer worked extensively with horn players—especially saxophonists—during his first decade as a bandleader, in recent years he’s chosen other kinds of projects as a showcase for his compositions.  His regular trio (with bassist Stephan Crump and Marcus Gilmore) has been his most frequent option, with some terrific records that have worked to solidify his reputation as one of the leading pianists on the current scene: Historicity, Accelerando, and most recently, 2015’s Break Stuff.  But his one-off projects have been just as effective, such as his piano-meets-string quartet suite Mutations or last year’s gorgeous duet recording with Wadada Leo Smith, A Cosmic Rhythm With Each Stroke.  Even so, fans of Iyer’s early records may have been occasionally justified in missing the raw, visceral energy that characterized Iyer’s music with saxophonists like Rudresh Mahanthappa or Steve Lehman.  And after all, Iyer first started to establish himself in the 1990s by working with Steve Coleman, so that love of a groove aided and abetted by strong brass players is a central part of his musical DNA.  After almost ten years without a recording featuring a saxophonist (2008’s Tragicomic, with Mahanthappa), the question emerged: What could Iyer do if given a larger ensemble as a canvas on which to paint his complex, edgy and mesmerizing compositions?

Here’s the answer. 

Iyer’s sextet on Far From Over, with a superlative trio of horn players (Steve Lehman on alto sax, Mark Shim on tenor sax, and Graham Haynes on cornet, flugelhorn and occasional electronics), is precisely the resource Iyer needed to bring into being some of his most infectious, inspired music in recent memory.  Once again joined by bassist Crump, and frequent past partner Tyshawn Sorey behind the drum kit, this is a band capable of covering a wide-ranging emotional spectrum in realizing Iyer’s vision.  From intimacy to aggression, and moody introspection to dynamic exultation, this is a remarkable recording, one that will take Iyer’s already formidable legacy to another level altogether.

Unlike many of Iyer’s previous albums, there are no covers here.  Iyer clearly has a lot to say, and these ambitious compositions give his colleagues plenty to do in keeping up with his rhythmic and melodic intricacies.  The first two cuts alone, “Poles” and “Far From Over” are striking in their mix of power and nuance.  Catchy rhythms get the head bobbing right away—Iyer’s ostinatos, Sorey’s whip-smart drumwork and Lehman’s brawny solo on “Poles” provide a burning intensity that launches the record convincingly—but upon repeated listening one is more likely to explore the subtler aspects that reveal Iyer’s craftsmanship as a composer.  Listen to the way the horns carve out the polyrhythmic foundation of “Far From Over,” with overlapping threads weaving in and out, while Iyer, Sorey and Crump develop their own rhythmic exposition that somehow, amazingly, stays in sync with the horns.  The band has an uncanny ability to make music that is both accessible and, at the same time, exhilaratingly complex and rich.  It requires multiple encounters in order to take it all in, but it’s hardly a chore to undertake that task because the music is so enjoyable and riveting.

“Down to the Wire” is another excellent example of the band’s artistry: what starts out as a fairly straightforward piano burner with just Crump and Sorey in dialogue with Iyer takes a turn halfway through when the horns jump into the mix.  Shim’s impassioned tenor solo ratchets up the intensity another notch, and then Lehman and Haynes join him, both through syncopated bursts as well as unbelievably difficult ensemble parts.  Sorey is central here, as he is throughout the album.  For someone whose restraint on his own records has now become legendary, he sure likes to turn it loose when he’s on other people’s projects; his tenacious solo on “Down to the Wire” is superb, and his playing on many of the cuts is thunderous.  His steady pummeling of the toms on “Good on the Ground” anchors the momentum of one of the record’s most gripping and bustling tracks, with the horns locked in perfect rapport with Iyer’s own steely delivery.

In addition to its many other virtues, the album is paced well also.  The driving fervor of the music’s more tempestuous tracks requires an occasional pause so listeners can catch their breath, and this is where Haynes’s subtle electronics (not to mention Iyer’s Fender Rhodes) work to invoke the spirit of ‘70s Miles, both on the brief “End of the Tunnel” and “Wake.”  They offer just enough atmosphere and mystery to still the mood, before the group once again brings things to a boil.  “For Amiri Baraka” is a poignant tribute piece, significantly the only cut featuring just Iyer, Crump and Sorey, and its melancholic spirit is another counterweight to the more boisterous music on the record.  Finally, “Threnody” concludes the album by traversing its entire emotional terrain, with Iyer’s somber ruminations preceding another powerful solo from Lehman, who ranges from introspective to incendiary to end an astonishing hour of music with a flourish.

Iyer remarks in his liner notes that the album’s title is meant to suggest the significance of the ongoing global struggle for justice, rights and equality.  Without taking anything away from the importance of that message, one can also see as it as a statement of the enduring vitality of Iyer’s music and his work with this band, which is hopefully just getting started.  It’s an exceptional release, one befitting Iyer’s status as one of our finest pianists and composers.


MJG said...

Having listened to this a few times now I find it a surprisingly conservative recording. Undoubtedly well played, I hear it as effectively an update on the Blue Note sextet, horn led, hard bop formula but for our times. Sorey and Lehman's playing seem to bring a more contemporary edge to proceedings. Haynes's contributions stand out as calm centres amongst the sometimes slightly overwrought collective playing on many tracks. The calmer tracks have a lot more resonance and depth for me.

Compared to the recent recordings of Iyer's peers (and sometime bandmates) like Coleman, Berne, Lehman and Sorey much of this seems based on older structures and forms of instrumental interaction, almost head/solo on some tracks. As such,it seems to sound like last century rather than this - not necessarily a bad thing just somewhat surprising given Iyer's earlier, more adventurous recordings with Mahanthappa on horns or his work with Fieldwork.

Don't get me wrong, it's a good listen with much to recommend it but just not the listen I was expecting from Iyer, and this stellar line up.

Anonymous said...

How old is the post bop more than free jazz? At times free jazz albums that sound outdated, like 40 or 50 years ago (i.e, with very established formulas, so academic) have been commenting here, and nobody criticizes that aspect. Why?

Anonymous said...

Can't agree more. Definitely not an edgy album. And this time ECM's sound did not help at all.