Vijay Iyer: Tragicomic

[11 May 2008]

By Michael Patrick Brady

The ability to derive pleasure from pain, to transform ugly despair into rewarding beauty, is a peculiar and necessary element of human resiliency. It’s a talent that has sustained the human spirit through some of the worst horrors imaginable. Tragicomedy rightly sees the world as it is, capable of wondrous highs and devastating lows but neither entirely perfect nor fatally flawed.

Pianist Vijay Iyer sees no better time to remind us of the tragicomic perspective than now, when so much about the world seems so dire. As a jazz musician, Iyer’s trade is rooted in soul and emotion, a passionate tradition of beautiful art that grew out of tragedy and oppression. He’s not just an artist, however; with a Masters in physics from Yale and a Ph.D. in technology and the arts from UC Berkeley, he’s a scientist and intellectual.

To Iyer, his album Tragicomic isn’t meant to simply reflect the state of our times, it is meant help transform it. Looking at the cavalcade of tragedy that has engulfed the 21st century, particularly in the United States, it would not be hard to despair. Few would argue that these aren’t the worst of times. Nevertheless, Iyer sees the turbulence not as the convulsions of a dying entity but instead as the fits and starts of a new being, one ready to emerge from its dreadful cocoon stronger and with greater potential than we might imagine. Tragicomic is a statement of transformation, of bittersweet existence in a world where information is easier to come by but harder to understand.

To accomplish his metamorphic ends, Iyer has drawn together an exceptional ensemble including Marcus Gilmore, bassist Stephen Crump, and alto saxophonist Rudresh Manhanthappa, who was last heard contributing to Amir ElSaffar’s exceptional Two Rivers, which also plotted a path through issues of identity and geopolitical turbulence.

Manhanthappa is given the lead on the album’s first real dustup, “Macaca Please”, referring to the racial slur used by former Virginia Senator George Allen to describe a young Indian-American man. Both Iyer and Manhanthappa are of Indian descent, and clearly view this incident as a watershed moment not just for Indian-Americans but for the whole of American culture, which was forced to confront lingering prejudices in a very public way. The saxophone begins with an incessant, almost mocking riff that doubles back on itself before Iyer’s piano seizes control with a lightly tapped improvisation that finds strength not through force but through beauty.

Here, and on the delicate “Aftermath” which follows, Iyer’s playing recalls that of Andrew Hill, melodic and tuneful, with an ear for sonorous progressions yet loaded with clever angles and percussive flair. “Aftermath” isn’t the raucous bashing one might expect, but instead a thoughtful and introspective piece that manages to embody its suggestive title with epic subtlety rather than harsh or provocative methods. This approach is epitomized by a very soft, captivating bass solo by Crump, which anchors the track.

The penultimate track, “Threnody”, and its coda, “Becoming”, close the album with an encapsulation of Iyer’s tragicomic outlook. The former track is a solemn elegy, its name clearly signaling the mood of mourning as the ensemble puts the sounds it has raised throughout the album to rest and buries the negative energy of slurs and alienation, of darkness and despair. It tapers off as if it was a finale and in any other place, it probably would be. After a short respite, however, the shimmering stirring of “Becoming” slowly builds, somewhat resembling the undercurrent of album opener “The Weight of Things”, as if to imply a cyclical nature to Tragicomic.  “Become” is different, though; it flutters, slowly emerging into this new environment with the promise of great things to come.

Iyer’s music is never regressive nor is it overly nostalgic. Rather, the music on Tragicomic bears a visionary intent. Perhaps it’s Iyer’s analytical nature or relative youth that leads him to look forward. In any case, he wants listeners who hear his music to consider the vagaries of the modern world without apprehension. He wants us to see that no matter how unpredictable the future may be, or how dark things may become, that we as a people have the power to turn the bad into something good.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/vijay-iyer-tragicomic/