The Vijay Iyer Trio has worked together for more than a decade, and Break Stuff reminds us that it remains a backbone of this musician’s art. The last year has been a prolific one for Iyer, a pianist and musical thinker who has been on some roll: a MacArthur Fellowship in 2013, a Harvard professorship in 2014, and last year’s productive signing with ECM, the granddaddy of prestige independent labels in jazz. Break Stuff, featuring just Iyer, bassist Stephan Crump, and drummer Marcus Gilmore, may be the least grand of the composer’s recent projects, but it should be the most telling.
Iyer’s move to ECM was inaugurated by two projects somewhat beyond the pianist’s jazz roots. Mutations, released just under a year ago, bookended a suite for piano, electronics, and string quartet with some solo piano work. There was improvisation there, but the work could fit only uncomfortably into a “jazz” box. Even further afield was November 2014’s Radhe, Radhe: Rites of Holiday, a film soundtrack for a larger ensemble that touched the centennial of Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” more directly than it referenced the blues or swing or any other American music. These classical or other directions have always been part of Iyer’s art, but the bulk of his discography before 2014 was situated more directly within the “jazz” tradition.
With Break Stuff, he’s back to the smaller — but still considerable — range of colors available from a traditional jazz piano trio, and the reference points sit more clearly within American music. However, this does not make the range of Break Stuff narrow.
One of the most powerful tracks here is the deceptively simple “Hood”, which uses repeated notes and circling patterns to create swirling rhythmic complexity. Marcus Gilmore takes the spotlight here, in a sense, but that is only the most simple way of hearing “Hood”. Crump nails down a repeated bass pattern that sits in a funky 4/4 space for most of the tune, yes, but from the very start multiple counts are swirling around each other, with the piano chiming and the drums accenting at dizzying cross-purposes. Rather than having a traditional jazz “solo”, “Hood” gives us a breathtaking drama of time, syncopation, dialogue, and momentum in which the three members of the trio produce snarling criss-cross tension that has at least five different components at any one time. When Iyer produces a spiderweb pattern at the end and the tune comes to a perfect ending, it’s tough not to let out a long, Sheeee-it.
From “Hood”’s minimalist cycling and hip-hop break-beat patterns, it’s a pleasure to hear a semi-traditional version of Thelonious Monk’s “Work” that demonstrates how more “modern” rhythmic dialogue has plain roots in jazz from 70 years ago. The trio swings “Work” within the tradition, but the freedom of rhythmic conversation within this version is just as complex and contrapuntal as that of the newer tune. It’s no wonder that Iyer calls Monk his “number one hero of all time.”
Rhythm is the number one concern, with a bullet, throughout Break Stuff. The title track uses a simple and appealing harmonic motion that brings to mind a tune by another Iyer hero: “Maiden Voyage” by Herbie Hancock. But the action is in the pulse again, and joyously so. The band kicks off an idiosyncratic funk feel (a soft accent “on the one” and a sharp hit on three) which allows the whole trio to kick up its heels during a sparkling piano solo. When Crump solos, Gilmore moves over to a ballad tempo dappled with Tony Williams-esque cymbal work that makes you think of “Maiden Voyage” all over again. In both incarnations, the song creates little spots of silence — “breaks” — that define the art of this band.
So powerful and interesting are the rhythmic investigations of this band that I keep having this jazz fan’s fantasy: just as adventurous young folks who loved the exploratory rock of the 1960s (the Grateful Dead, the Velvet Underground) eventually found their way to the John Coltrane Quartet, so might today’s hip-hop fans eventually discover this band — as well as Matthew Shipp, Mary Halvorson, and others. Superficial differences aside, this music has the pulsing life of modern pop.
Not that intriguing harmony doesn’t have its say as well. Coltrane’s “Countdown” is another jazz standard that appears, with its quick-passing chordal movement masked at first, as the trio improvises expansively. When the classic harmonic motion becomes recognizable with its implied melody, the band has moved into a tricky Latin-ish rhythm as well. The solo piano take on Strayhorn’s “Blood Count” is, naturally, a harmonic showpiece. Iyer works the song’s dynamics from soft to loud, and he moves at deliberate and sometimes variable tempo, finding emotion in every corner of the tune.
Vijay Iyer’s move to ECM has been praised plenty, in significant part because it seemed to make possible the expansive range of Mutations and Radhe Radhe, projects that clearly fit the ECM jazz-yes-but-new-music-too vibe. I’m not sure that the trio is as well-served by the sonic change to a Manfred Eicher-produced sound. To my ear, the band comes off as less fat and full, less funky — a little more dry and clean. When a tune like “Geese” begins on a Crump arco solo, he sounds distant to me, as if he were recorded from around the next alp (and Crump is a player whose sound is normally as fat as a Meghan Trainor hit). When the same tune snaps into a legitimately funky groove, it doesn’t pop the way the same trio’s version of “Galang” did when many first discovered these guys in 2009.
I think this is the reason I feel that I had to listen to Break Stuff a few times before it really grabbed me. Sure, there’s no Michael Jackson transformation here, and maybe that’s part of it, too. But I think some of the band’s punch has been sanded down on this recording. The atmosphere on a tune like closer “Wrens” is gorgeous, but the trade-off is a net minus. To my ears, all that incredible rhythmic interplay sounded more plain, more insistent on the trio’s last two outings.
This quibble has nothing to do with the playing and composing that make Break Stuff such a triumph and such a joy. This trio remains one of the ongoing jazz ensembles that seems to discover new things at every turn, that seems simultaneously on the cutting edge and embedded deep in the music’s history. Vijay Iyer, Stephan Crump, and Marcus Gilmore continue to make the argument that we are in a golden age for daring jazz that is also accessible to any open ear, young, old, or otherwise.
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