Work in Progress

Dissertations on the Percussive School

The long fingers of pianist Vijay Iyer, who appeared with his quartet in the recent Jazz Gallery series, "Pianobility," look like tarantula legs as they scamper across the keys, arched high and slightly bent at the knuckles. In liner notes and promotional materials, he has aligned himself with the percussive school of jazz piano—Ellington, Hines, Monk, Powell, Taylor, Nichols, Weston, Tyner, and the rest—and you can hear the influences at work, but he doesn't sound like any of them. His touch is firm and dramatic, in accord with his penchant for vamps (put Ibrahim on the list) and architectonic structures and ringing overtones (Jamal, too); yet its very deliberation suggests more of a pressing than a striking of the keys (also Pullen and Walton). In an era of homages, Iyer is no slouch: His notes to his first CD, the nicely titled Memorophilia, include his pantheon of more than 80 musicians "and many others, of course." Still, his sound is his own, and you would recognize it in a blindfold test.

That alone is impressive, particularly for an academic—degrees from Yale and Berkeley and a dissertation, "Microstructures of Feel, Macrostructures of Sound: Embodied Cognition in West African and African-American Musics." (Academics have to write like that; it's a law.) Iyer is full of words and himself: His music, he says in the notes to Architextures, is about "what I have learned as a member of the postcolonial, multicultural South Asian diaspora, as a person of color peering in critically from the margins of American mainstream culture, and as a human being with a body, a mind, memories, emotions, and spiritual aspirations." That may be true, but happily, his music lacks any whiff of homework. Like his touch, it is spry and darting—very smart and without a need to show off or push a point. South Asian tropes are handily reconciled. Programmatic titles aside, his music is all music.

Full of words and himself, but lacking any whiff of homework
photo: Sylvia Plachy
Full of words and himself, but lacking any whiff of homework

Iyer, not yet 30, has recorded three discs as a leader for Asian Improv. Each is significantly better than its predecessor, and his Jazz Gallery appearance suggested advances since he recorded the soon-to-be-released third, Panoptic Modes. The first two were recorded in 1995 and 1997, but released in 1998. For Memorophilia, he borrowed credibility by using a few established players, including Steve Coleman and George Lewis. Iyer's affection for bedrock vamps is evident, as is his inclination to begin improvisations behind the beat with exploratory figures—the tarantula feeling its way before it charges into a rhythmic dance, bounded by pulsing chords and riffs. Although the bass and drum solos are integrated into rhythm-section passages, they do not always sustain interest; some of the pieces are more focused than others. "March & Epilogue" gets life from the march beat conjoined with inventive piano responses, before George Lewis's stormy trombone takes it into avant-garde-land. "Peripatetics"—with Liberty Ellman's guitar, an electric bass ostinato, and a whimsical theme—is more satisfying. Iyer's solo grows in assurance and dynamics, as if looking for a home and then finding it and then receding from it as bass or drums garner strength and take the spotlight—practically an idée fixe. Sometimes, as in the unaccompanied "Algebra," he shifts focus from nuance-and-overtones to dissonance, repetition, block chords, and a driving percussive prance of a solo. But always, he is an avant-garde acolyte who insists on structure. When his fingers drag him into the realm of step exercises, he saves himself with overt swing rhythms, but an algebraic stiffness crops up throughout, creating trade-offs between his need for order and the suppleness of his best playing. Architextures, for trio and octet, is a vast improvement, continuing his association with Ellman and adding two saxophonists, Aaron Stewart (who leans toward Shorter) and Eric Crystal (who leans toward Coltrane). He opens with an unaccompanied "Prelude," showing keen understanding of Cecil Taylor's softer side (and the caprice of Jaki Byard, also in the pantheon), and continues with "Meeting of Rivers," which begins with a reference to Ellington's ballet The Riverbefore the saxophones kick up a unison riff. This is a far tighter group than on the first album, and Iyer's playing has taken on a cultivated lilt. "Three Peas" has a touch of the snake charmer, probably with deeper roots in Ellington and Coltrane than in South Asia, but there's a sustaining authenticity to the solos, especially that by altoist Rudresh Mahanthappa. Both discs are too long, of course—"always leave 'em wanting more" is not an avant-garde maxim—but they document an artist sidestepping eclecticism even as he shifts from one base to another. Iyer strides a lot closer to home on the forthcoming Panoptic Modes, which features the same quartet that appeared at the Jazz Gallery—Mahanthappa, bassist Stephan Crump, drummer Derrek Phillips. The pieces are brighter and handsomely voiced, and the group is more than just tight. It's a unit that not only avoids head-and-solos routines, but integrates the ensemble almost to the point of doing away with soloist-and-accompaniment. On "Atlanean Tropes" and "One Thousand and One," for example, Iyer micromanages the performances with vamps, simultaneously playing a bass clef unison with the bassist and a treble unison with the altoist. The most Eastern-sounding piece is "Invariants," which alternates piano and alto phrases with a unison alto-piano high note serving as punctuation mark. Iyer's solo is exemplary—his trademark approach, pacing himself with hesitations before revving up aggressive spidery phrases that charge ahead with imposing conviction. Influences are apparent—"Configurations" suggests Tyner, and "Circular Argument" is Iyer's take on bop, complete with flatted fifth—but the defining touches are distinct: the unison voicing on the former, the large intervals in his solo on the latter. He seems to strum the atypically lyrical chords on "Mountains," which is at once airy and restive, as if designed for a movie about Hans Castorp. Vamps are Iyer's strength and weakness, animating some of his pieces and stultifying others; more to the point, they are a device he uses to excess, as he does passages in which the bass comes to the fore. The idea is sound, but the bass solos are neither varied nor distinctive enough to justify the space they get. These quibbles remained unaddressed at the Jazz Gallery, though most of the performances were even livelier. Mahanthappa, a gifted player with centered pitch and a propensity for the middle register, played with a tremendous exuberance, as did Iyer, who loves foot pedals and occasionally plucks the strings. Vamps, ostinatos, basslines, and punctuating chords center the solos so that improvised figures zoom into full stops—periods. A writerly analogy becomes even more pronounced when Iyer and Mahanthappa exchange phrases of varying length, as on "One Thousand and One"—they aren't trading fours, but whole sentences, seemingly free and yet bound by an ostinato. When Iyer really digs in, you know you are hearing an accomplished musician, but you also get the sense that he is keeping something in reserve. He is a work in progress, and his third album whets the appetite for his fourth.

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