[25 March 2012]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
Jazz piano trios are kind of like the postal service. No one seems impressed by snail-mail anymore, but does it not do its job? Sure, we have modern technological wizardry, but it has almost forced us into forgetting the logistical wonders of dropping a letter in a mailbox and having it appear at someone else’s house in a matter of days. And just like 4G networks, our tastes for modern chamber jazz have prematurely outgrown the appreciation for acoustic instruments to the point where a heavily distorted cello might strike most of us as “cute”. What we need to do is step back and simply ask ourselves whether or not something delivers. Does a certain piano trio, no matter how antiquated the format, deliver the goods? To say that Vijay Iyer is like the postal service would be a disservice to him and his trio. That would shrink their contributions to modern music down to labels such as “sturdy”, “reliable”, and “consistent.” Yawn. No, Vijay Iyer is better than the postal service. With Accelerando, he delivers letters you weren’t expecting but are more than glad to receive.
As a pianist and composer, Vijay Iyer is enjoying a reputation that was hard won. He’s relatively young (41, as of this typing), of Indian descent, and is currently caught up in a post-bop golden age relished by the NPR-inclined crowd but probably dismissed as modernist pandering by the jazz purists (see his 2003 collaboration with Mike Ladd, In What Language?, for further blasphemy). His unorthodox choice of covers probably ruffles feathers too, ranging from John Lennon to Stevie Wonder. But Iyer has been steaming forth, undeterred, compounding on the critical and commercial successes of 2009’s Historicity, 2010’s Solo and the superb World/jazz mash-up with Prasanna and Nitin Mitta on Tirtha. Accelerando, his latest session with bassist Stephan Crump and drummer Marcus Gilmore, continues to up an ante that’s already way up there to begin with. When someone dishes out an album comprised of original tunes alongside covers of Heatwave, Michael Jackson, Henry Threadgill, Herbie Nichols, and Duke Ellington, your gut reaction may be something along the lines of a very sarcastic “oh, you’re sooo very clever.” Not so with Accelerando. The sum is greater than the parts, and the parts could stand alone for a million years.
Much like one of his covers subjects, Henry Threadgill, Vijay Iyer does not let his band approach jazz music as this unbendable thing that’s at the mercy of chart forms. There is a lot of ducking and weaving going on, and not only on an instrumental level of interplay. The musical forms and figures come and go in an organic stampede, presented in a way that is both artistically unpredictable yet couldn’t have unfolded any other way. Threadgill’s “Little Pocket Size Demons” is a wonderful case in point of how Iyer’s trio kindly ignores jazz rules rather than rudely plundering them.
Vijay Iyer applies the same elasticity to his originals, particularly a modern swing tucked into “Optimism”. Just when you think solo rounds are about to me made, the whole trio solos at once. The quirky yet headstrong title track, which should have been the album’s leadoff track, plays out more like a piece of pop with an introductory synthetic beat and what sounds like a series of power chords on the piano. If there was ever a moment on the album that exhaled “this is what I do”, it’s here.
A holdover from his acclaimed album Solo is “Human Nature”, a cover that Iyer had been toying with since the time of the King of Pop’s death. In this new trio setting, he keeps the breezy waltz feeling intact but allows Gilmore and Crump to take it in whichever way they choose over the course of nearly ten minutes. And though I may catch flack for saying this in light of the passing of the song’s original performer, “Human Nature” is reinvented here. Again.
Put simply, Accelerando is an album filled with highlights. The intensely controlled swing of Heatwave’s “The Star of the Story”, the modest lyricism of “Mmmhmmm”, the vertigo-inducing rolls of “Actions Speak”, the simple beauty of Duke’s “The Village of the Virgins” – it’s all here. There is a reason Vijay Iyer keeps popping up on year-end best-of lists; it’s because he synthesizes such disparate styles, some easily palatable and some requiring more effort, into a striking vision of his own.