Beyond the Melting Pot

Vijay Iyer and Rudresh Mahanthappa sure are tough-minded—and also Indian Americans

Vijay Iyer's Reimagining ends with and takes its title from—sort of—a solo piano rumination on a John Lennon song I never liked to begin with, then came to despise through oversaturation in the days following Lennon's murder. I didn't buy the utopian bit; the real Lennon—the slain idol I mourned and wanted the media to acknowledge—was the one who surfaced on "Run for Your Life" and "Girl," the angry John of "God," "Mother," and the Rolling Stone interviews. But I should have known better than to expect something sappy from the tough-minded Iyer, whose "Imagine" is more deconstruction than cover, retaining only a suggestion of the melody amid ominous, rolling chords—a post-globalization "Imagine" that concedes the dream is over, notwithstanding some hopeful tinkling at the end.

At Merkin Hall earlier this year, apparently, Iyer combined "Imagine" with "Somewhere," from West Side Story. Unless "Revolutions," the new CD's careening opener, owes a debt to the Beatles I don't hear, his only other nod to classic rock was "Because of Guns," on 2003's Blood Sutra, a steamroller riff based on Jimi Hendrix's remake of "Hey Joe," a misogynist revenge saga whose meaning Iyer altered by virtue of a cautionary title. As an interpreter, Iyer seems to choose songs for their lyrics and extra-musical connotations—the opposite of what I'd expect from so abstract a composer, much less one with a bachelor's in physics and a Ph.D. in music and cognitive science. This will have to remain a puzzle for now, because the most remarkable thing about Reimagining is its nine originals for trio or quartet—so strong in conception and performance it seems only a matter of time before the same sort of consensus Jason Moran inspired a few years ago begins to form around Iyer, who was born in Rochester, New York, in 1971, the son of upper-middle-class Indian immigrants (father a retired research chemist, mother a manager for Xerox).

The most exhilarating of Iyer's new pieces is "Phalanx," where he interlocks with bassist Stephen Crump and drummer Marcus Gilmore (Roy Haynes's 18-year-old grandson, making his recording debut), for a whirlwind tempo they maintain when altoist Rudresh Mahanthappa enters at a slower one (and an independent time signature or on a different beat). Like many of Iyer's solos here—an especially deft one following a series of excited repetitions where you expect a bridge is more like a duet with the precocious Gilmore—it's Iyer's left hand that drums out a semblance of a pulse, moving in and out of sync with the bass, while the traps engage in free counterpoint. The rhythm section ups the volume and complexity in response to Mahanthappa during his impassioned choruses, and with everything pointing to an explosive drum solo as the climax, Gilmore's subtle and utterly relaxed one is quite a surprise.

The opposite of what you'd expect
photo: Pooja Bakri
The opposite of what you'd expect

Details

Vijay Iyer
Reimagining
Savoy Jazz

Nothing Iyer achieves on Reimagining is unprecedented. His odd long phrasing and song structures recall Andrew Hill's, and there are inevitable echoes of Cecil Taylor circa Into the Hot. More recent reference points would be Steve Coleman's M-Base crunch—as in hip-hop, there are no weak beats—and Anthony Davis's trick of normalizing dissonance via repetition, an influence that was more obvious on In What Language?, Iyer's 2003 collaboration with spoken-word artist Mike Ladd, which though smaller in scale than Davis's opera X required a similar compositional stretch. Iyer's triumph is in understanding that composition and improvisation each have something to gain when they overlap. There's something novel going on from beginning to end in each track, and although it's occasionally a simple matter of dynamics (as on "Inertia," the album's closest thing to a ballad), it's more often a case of rhythmic layering or metrical subdivision (examples include "Song for Midwood," which proves 7/4 can be funky, and "Infogee's Cakewalk," which reconfigures a hip-hop rhythm into New Orleans second line).

I'm unable to say if any of this is the result of childhood osmosis or Iyer's self-conscious immersion in traditional Carnatic music as an adult. I know too little about Indian music, North or South, to speak with authority, besides which jazz is still a melting pot—it's assimilated so many diverse musical strains by this point, and particularly in recent years, that attempting to pinpoint where in the world anything came from is a fool's game.

The Colorado-born Mahanthappa, Iyer's Jimmy Lyons, is more generous in leaving clues. I missed his Dakshina Ensemble—his jazz quartet plus a trio of South Indian musicians, including saxophonist Kadri Gopalnath—at the Asia Society two weeks ago, but caught up with them in Philadelphia. I was talking to Mahanthappa after the show when a customer spotted him and asked, "Was that Latin jazz?" "Do I look Latin?" Mahanthappa asked.

A giveaway should have been the unusual number of Indian people who turned out, even if few of them wore kurtas or saris. My only argument with what I'm tempted to call identity jazz is the mistaken belief of some promoters that the way to lure more people to jazz is to convince audiences that it's about them. The Polish-speaking immigrants I see at Tomasz Stanko are no more likely to show up for David S. Ware than the lesbian reconstructionist rabbi I recognized at a performance of Stephen Bernstein's Diaspora Blues—and African American musicians are suddenly the ones left out in the cold. For all of that, the music itself can be pretty heady stuff, especially when driven by an honest desire to come to terms with a forgotten or long-taken-for-granted cultural heritage. In the Dakshina Ensemble, the two saxophonists found a common tongue in B-flat. That's a natural setting for the bluesy, speech-inflected Mahanthappa. But it's also Gopalnath's sruti, or favored key.

 
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