Pianist Vijay Iyer is happy to stun you, to knock you into awe, to blow your mind. He brings technique, imagination, and wide perspective to his art. Historicity, the first recording wholly devoted to Iyer’s trio with bassist Stephen Crump and drummer Marcus Gilmore, is a jewel.
This trio, along with alto saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa, has been wildly productive on records and live, but Historicity feels in every respect like the “statement” album that Iyer has been driving toward for more than a decade. “Historicity” means “a state or fact of being historically authentic”, and that is a fair description of what Iyer is attempting — and plainly achieves — here. With this disc, Iyer’s trio makes its own complex and beguiling language fuse with the jazz tradition in a fully contemporary way.
Without a searing alto sax in the band, the trio sounds more like a perfectly balanced group than like a blistering partnership between Iyer and Mahanthappa. Even though the Iyer-Mahanthappa partnership has been adventurous, reaching from complex acoustic jazz to hip-hop, Historicity feels more daring and more historical at once. It moves with assured consistency across a huge swath of musical territory, from a Leonard Bernstein ballad to up-to-the-minute pop songs, but every step is the trio’s own invention.
“Galang”, a song by the contemporary artist M.I.A., captures a hip-hop groove without resorting to trickery. Gilmore and Crump play simply, but with focused groove, Crump particularly effective in playing aggressively with his bow. Iyer sculpts around the groove in repetitive dissonances, but also in a jagged melody that sounds like updated Thelonious Monk. It is telling that Iyer, Crump, and Gilmore find just as much funk in Julius Hemphill as they do in M.I.A. Hemphill’s “Dogon A.D.” is gutbucket strong, with syncopated snare hits cracking against Crump’s arco groans and double-stop pluckings. Iyer plays the melody in a dissonant harmonization, then begins a solo that is more thoughtful than explosive, letting the groove simmer rather than ignite. It’s a potent stew.
Iyer also works interesting grooves on Stevie Wonder’s “Big Brother” and Ronnie Foster’s “Mystic Brew”. “Big Brother” begins and ends quietly, with Iyer’s piano playing some simple polyrhythms in extreme registers before Gilmore enters with a tom-tom pattern straight off the Bayou. “Mystic Brew” (known largely for being sampled by A Tribe Called Quest for “Electric Relaxation”) is given a low-key, ambling groove that the band subtly shifts to create odd and wonderful effects. Both songs are examples of finding “new standards” for jazz playing that come from the pop music canon — examples a thousand times more convincing than the lame attempts by Herbie Hancock on his 1996 The New Standard. Some tasks are better left to younger musicians.
Among his original compositions, Iyer sets up opportunities for layered, complex funk (“Historicity”), dramatic potboilers (“Helix”), and a harmonically consonant Jarrett-ish ramble (“Trident: 2010”). For this project, what seems important is that Iyer has nestled these tunes in the middle of a history lesson, even if it is one that does not ignore recent history. The language of this trio — intricate rhythmic play, harmonic adventure, an instinctive feel for the pocket, and a careful balance among the individual voices — provides a constant across all this varied material.
For fans of more traditional jazz who want to understand what makes a contemporary piano trio tick, there is “Somewhere”, a refraction of the Bernstein/Sondheim classic. The melody remains intact here and is still beautiful. Crump walks under the written melody, but Gilmore keeps the rhythm in a non-swinging Latin mode. But, quite subtly and in accompaniment, the group brings jagged shifts into the song, moments when the trio as a whole stutters and lurches with a sense of newness. And so, when the group never truly returns to the melody, instead playing just a portion of it, reharmonized, in radically dramatic fashion, we are reminded that jazz has a way of reaching backward and forward at the same time.
All the best jazz groups, and certainly the best piano trios, have managed this trick. They honor the past directly, but they also honor the past by imposing a highly individual personality on classic songs. With Historicity, the Vijay Iyer Trio emerges as another modern jazz trio that has found a fresh vision in an old form. Like Robert Glasper and Jason Moran, to name just two on the current scene, Vijay Iyer is refracting jazz piano in a new way, no longer merely pushing the boundaries of harmonic freedom, but altering the core with genuine changes to the groove.
But even among these other excellent groups, the Vijay Iyer Trio holds particularly fine promise. Balanced, not bombastic, long-practiced, and utterly identifiable even when playing across different styles — that’s a great band. And Historicity is the album they had to make.