Conceptual jazz that’s furious even when it’s inarticulate


The latest collaboration between pianist Vijay Iyer and performance artist Mike Ladd, following 1994’s In What Language?, suffers from a problem seemingly endemic to contemporary leftist critique. The project’s theme seems to be the ongoing erosion of the already fine line between information and propaganda, given the proliferation of blogs and partisan mass media. But Ladd’s verbal opacity works against him—you’re never quite sure what he’s getting at, just that he’s pissed off.

Iyer’s overloaded piano and synthesizer scores, a few crafted in tandem with guitarist
Liberty Ellman or vocalists Pamela Z and Pálína Jónsdóttir, work best when one detail rises above the others. It’s usually Iyer’s interlocking rhythms, but here and there it’s Pamela Z’s chilling bel canto on “Been There Done That” and “Cleaning Up the Mess,” or percussionist Guillermo E. Brown’s soulfully nerdy recitation and singing on shout-outs to Jon Stewart and Dan Rather. As for Ladd, I pretty much gave up on him as a thinker after hearing him say, during a Q&A
following a performance of In All Languages a few years ago, that cops were just custodians for the rich. No matter—his delivery is dexterous enough to hold your ear even when his logic is solipsistic or his point unclear. You couldn’t call what he does rap, exactly. But unlike Wynton Marsalis, he knows from flow.

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