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Vijay Iyer


(ACT Music & Vision; US: 31 Aug 2010; UK: Import)

Jazz still has rites of passage.  Tenor saxophonists, eventually, have to record “Body and Soul”.  Hawkins did it, and eventually they have to do it.  Their own way, sure, but do it they practically must. For jazz pianists, the historical hurdle is a program of solo piano.  The point is not to be Art Tatum but, rather, to demonstrate that your conception of jazz piano can withstand the nakedness, the scrutiny that solo playing implies.

Solo is Vijay Iyer’s trial by fire, and he emerges from the flames gleaming and lean.  Iyer has been recording as a leader for 15 years, and his last recording with a trio, Historicity, was as good a jazz recording as the new millennium has heard.  If ever there was a time to play solo, 2010 was it.

The result is idiosyncratic and highly personalized, very accessible but also very fresh.  Iyer tackles 11 compositions—transforming pop songs, recasting jazz standards and setting out original compositions that frame his approach to the other material.  The set is such a success because Iyer produces remarkable unity across all these tracks.  What I hear, at least, is a highly structured approach to the jazz vocabulary, but a structure that is not based on the usual chords, modes, and song forms as much as on interlocking repetitions and counterpoint that generate swing rhythm and dissonant excitement through overlapping lines.

In Solo‘s first act, Iyer applies varieties of this approach to the most well-known tunes, including Thelonious Monk’s “Epistrophy” and the Michael Jackson hit “Human Nature”.  The Jackson tune famously contains a synth line that sounds like a downward spiral of two-note intervals, and Iyer leverages this line to create cascades of repeated lines that thread the whole performance.  While the simple melody comes through, Iyer takes every opportunity to layer his repetitions, be they melodic or rhythmic, and it makes the track a restless beauty.  Also, notably, it never feels like we get the “solo improvisation” section where Iyer finishes the written melody and just starts jamming.  Rather, here and throughout, the whole arrangement has a sense of gradual mutation and development, whether the written melody is being played or not.

“Epistrophy” deconstructs the Monk original by isolating certain licks and, again, repeating them so that the whole statement has a feeling of spinning in theatrical repetition.  This layering of repeated phrases never has the static sound of Glass-ian minimalism, however, because Iyer’s punch and dynamism at the keyboard still swings like mad.  Ellington’s “Black and Tan Fantasy” gets a slightly more traditional treatment, but even here, the punch and rumble of Iyer’s left hand evokes stride piano while sounding more like a cycling kind of simple repetition.  In the meantime, Iyer’s right hand manages both to “play the changes” and to move in symmetrical whorls of melody.  Essential.

The center of Solo consists of four original compositions and a tune by Iyer’s old boss Steve Coleman, each of which moves with an exciting wheel-within-a-wheel swirl.  “Autoscopy” has the texture of a very “free” Cecil Taylor exploration, but that is an illusion.  In fact, the lines of melody—while “atonal” in some sense—are not particularly “free”.  Iyer locks them together in what seems to be a very deliberate way, and when he brings the tune back to impressionistic tonality in the middle, these looping patterns sound more like what they are: woven threads that shimmer as you listen.

The track “Patterns”, then, comes as a kind of mission statement.  The five-note line that repeats so often is an incantation, certainly, but it is given life as stuttering left-hand fifths jab at it and then it swirls upward into a single repeated note.  This “pattern” serves as a melodic touchstone, from which Iyer generates variations in the form of shifting repetition.  What makes this tune—and all the others, really—work is the fluid passion that the artist brings to each flying variation.  Is it jazz if there’s no walking bass line or AABA form?  What could seem more like jazz than a spirit of continual passionate play?

Solo concludes with two songs that show Iyer’s technique at a greater distance from its obvious center.  Another Ellington tune, “Fleurette Africaine”, has a lovely, chiming ballad melody, but Iyer still manages to cloak it in some simple but shifting accompanying lines.  I haven’t heard a lovelier version of this tune.  Iyer’s shout-out to Sun Ra, “One for Blount”, closes the disc swinging as hard as anything else here, enough to get the head jabbing forward and a toe—unevenly, perhaps, but still—tapping.

For listeners looking for simpler descriptions or comparisons, I think it’s fair to say that Vijay Iyer’s solo piano playing has the knotty elegance of the solo work from Jason Moran, but with a more rigorous sense of (almost mathematical) structure.  There are moments when you can hear some old favorites peek out from the past: Keith Jarrett’s sense of rhapsody, Chick Corea’s dancing right hand, McCoy Tyner’s passion for climax.  These are mere twinges, and perhaps they come more from my own listening past than from Iyer’s playing.

Mostly, Iyer defies comparison other than in convincing you that he belongs in august company.  If this first solo recital was a historical test, then Vijay Iyer gets an A.  Bud Powell and Fats Waller look down and want to put a gold star on this album.  Monk and Ellington and Andrew Hill smile.  Most of the rest of us just shake our heads in amazed admiration.


Will Layman is a writer, teacher and musician living in the Washington, DC area. He is a contributor to National Public Radio and frequently appears as a guest on WNYC's "Soundcheck" as a jazz critic. He plays both funk and jazz in the bars and clubs in and near the nation's capital. His fiction and humor appear in print and online.

Vijay Iyer on Solo
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