Since the 1960s, when jazz developed a serious and dedicated avant-garde, virtually all atonality in jazz has been discussed as being “free jazz,” a term memorialized in a classic Ornette Coleman album with that title. Given the complexity of the disc—with two alto-trumpet-bass-drums quartets playing together in furious and exiting counterpoint—the term was probably inaccurate from the start. But today, with a growing body of harmonically avant-garde jazz that is, in fact, intricately composed and fit together with the care and planning of Tiffany jewelry, “free” seems increasingly wrong.
Fieldwork, a collective consisting of pianist Vijay Iyer, alto saxophonist Steve Lehman, and percussionist Tyshawn Sorey, is a premier example of “out” jazz that is nevertheless tightly controlled and intricate. This trio makes neither delicate chamber jazz nor free-for-all blowing. Fieldwork, rather, is engaged in a furious exploration of the edges of jazz with both rock energy and classical exactitude. It’s hard to call the result easy-on-the-ears, but man is it impressive: complex, powerful, brash, and involving. At the same time, Fieldwork does not make it easy to love its new recording, Door. It requires laser-involved listening. If you dig Door in the same way you would watch a new Scorsese movie, or read a new Murakami novel, then the music is happy to repay you. But don’t even think of just popping it on during dinner, or chilling to it during your morning commute. In fact, surely the best move would be to catch Iyer, Sorey, and Lehman (alto saxophone) live.
On disc, Fieldwork can still be mightily consuming. The tunes are split among all three members, but they demonstrate a singularity of purpose. In fact, it’s easy to think of the entirety of Door as a lengthy suite with recurring motifs that span individual songs. For example, the great bulk of the disc could be a considered a kind of concerto for Sorey’s toms and crash cymbals; “Of” begins slowly, but gradually puts Sorey in the mood to play complex rolls and groove-fills behind the trio, while “Bend” allows Sorey to play with the funked-out abandon of John Bonham via Dennis Chambers. Melodically, Lehman is usually asked to play jagged lines that contain peculiar intervallic jumps, and he carves them in the air with slashing directness. These melodies arise on nearly every song—counter-intuitive tracks that are un-hummable as much for their mend-bending time signatures as for their obtuse harmonies.
Let’s look at “Less”, a tune written by Iyer. It begins with a pastel melody for the alto, against which the piano plays half-dissonant accompaniment in a different time. Sorey colors this conversation with cymbals only, with no set time feeling. After nearly two minutes, the piano and alto seem to hint at locking together on something, but it does not materialize until 2:12, when a syncopated military groove is established by Iyer’s thumping left hand octaves and Sorey’s emerging funk. Lehman plays over this for two minutes, weaving his off-the-beat melody in a snake around Iyer’s squiggling right hand. When this feel wears down, there’s no clear return to the initial theme, but rather a tumbling backward of tempo and volume. It is utterly like a movie—a plot moving forward, and not necessarily repeating itself—but it can’t offer you a plain story or a set of heroes. You must listen closely to provide them yourself.
Listeners less inclined to listen analytically to every note will find long stretches of meandering here. “Cycle 1”, for example, is a slow exercise in non-obvious harmony, with Iyer and Lehman slowly-slowly circling each other, without actually seeming to be in the same key all that often. It’s like a beautiful, shifting shadow—but is a slow and obtuse work. The next two compositions (also by Sorey) run the other direction, but they’re still hard to decipher. “Pivot Point” is a super-speedy throw-down, with Lehman playing a line of boppish rhythm that keeps doubling back on itself and spraying harmonic ideas like a machine gun. Sorey rat-a-tats like Roy Haynes, and Iyer plays with a Fats Waller left hand, and a right hand either furiously chording like a guitar or playing dazzling swirls like Keith Jarrett. “Pivot Point Redux” takes the same material at half-time. Cool—but some listeners will find the exercise more intellectually interesting than emotionally appealing. But why assume that Fieldwork is trying to create some kind of smiling pleasure for its listeners? A tune like “Ghost Time” has a funky swagger even as the rhythm continually defies expectation, and “Rai” has a satisfying, crisp precision, even though it is impossible to tap your toe to.
Fieldwork—and a great deal of the music being released by the likes of Vijay Iyer, Steve Lehman, Rudresh Mahanthappa and others (and much of the work on Pi Recordings, for that matter)—is making headway in the music. Jazz, quite plainly, is art music. And the music on Door weds the complexity and daring of “art” with the power and punch of a new generation. The avant-garde in jazz is still somewhat hard to listen to, but there can be no argument about it being little more than a bunch of eek-onking with no design or care. This music is made with the greatest of care.
If you listen similarly, there is much to love here.