The Vijay Iyer Trio Takes Over

Vijay Iyer Trio
Act Music and Vision

A Flat-Out Great Band

The Vijay Iyer Trio—Iyer on piano, Stefan Crump on bass, and Marcus Gilmore on drums—is the best band in jazz. The group’s new recording, Accelerando is a bounty of pleasures and musical challenges. A band and a record this great calls for a public parade, or at least full on celebration. Champagne for everyone, I say!

There are plenty of fine jazz groups today, and there’s no shortage of experimentation that’s pushing the music forward through hip-hop or classical music while still keeping roots in the tradition. But Iyer’s trio is doing this with unique conviction, appeal and daring. This is a band that makes complexity thrilling because everything it does is grounded in the rich rhythmic push and pull that is jazz’s—and American music’s—central thesis.

The Vijay Iyer Trio, however, is doing some things new and doing them differently. The group’s 2009 recording, Historicity, was its first without a horn out front—and it was a statement of purpose that garnered notice from all over the jazz press. Covering music from all across the spectrum, the band refracted tradition through a complex take on today’s dance rhythms. It did this as an explicitly acoustic jazz trio, however, thus advancing the jazz vocabulary rather than making some kind of “crossover” music.

A Nearly Perfect Record

Accelerando is even more remarkable and dynamic—simply the best jazz record in recent memory. On this recording, the trio plays with an incredible degree of integration, sounding like it has fully worked out a series of ideas about how a band should deal with rhythm and dynamic interaction in today’s jazz. The music on Accelerando is immensely elastic, but it’s not loose. Rather, the band plays with a roaring, united front of sound, within which the rich tradition of jazz plays out in scintillating conversation.

Iyer composed five of the 11 songs here, and these tracks seem to share a sense of rushing momentum that is designed to press the trio’s ability to operate amidst swirling and surging currents of time. The twin tunes that open Accelerando, “Bode” and “Optimism”, work less as traditional melodies than as slowing rising walls of sound and rhythm. The currency of Iyer’s trio is motion—a sense of that the three voices of the trio are in constant motion with each other, around each other, even against each other, but with true choreographed care.

The second tune sets up two different rhythms in Iyer’s left and right hands, and then Gilmore and Crump follow suit by setting up their own contrasting motions. What sounds initially like a composed set of contrapuntal lines gradually unfurls into improvisation, with each of these (four) voices staying in contrasting motion, even as the players slowly mutate their playing.

All of this is remarkable and skillful and daring, but what makes this such a singular band is that these wildly contrasting voices somehow feel completely united throughout and, at key moments, play with unmatched, coordinated power. At the end of “Optimism”’s bass solo, for example, Iyer reenters the center of the music with a repeating, circular figure that slowly builds over a rising set of repetitions, which repetitions then become a set of thrilling repeated notes, then quickly repeated chords, all rising in an incredible crescendo. Gilmore pushes the band harder as the repetitions build up, Crump locks into his own pattern, the piano rises higher still—until a truly shattering climax. Your breath: long ago taken away.

Just as incredible are this trio’s set of takes on three complex but compelling pop songs. The Heatwave tune, “The Star of the Story” (written by Rod Temperton in the ’70s) is a classic piece of sophisticated groove music, and Iyer seems to understand it from the inside out. The trio begins by playing it with great fidelity to the original but then sets off into a wild section that is grounded by a pounding Gilmore pattern setting off a bowed bass solo that grows under a set of stuttering cross rhythms on piano. Once Crump drops back to playing a series of funky low notes, Iyer returns with a set of variations on the tune’s theme that, again, build to amazing unity of purpose.

Even better is the Michael Jackson hit “Human Nature”, which starts with the recognizable piano lick and then moves to a straight melody statement that is syncopated over an idiosyncratic, interlocking pattern that finds Gilmore and Crump mixing funk rhythms with sudden gaps of silence. In the way Iyer digs into the melody (especially the second verse), there is just a bit of how The Bad Plus attacks a pop tune, but then the band moves into an improvisation that shatters all expectations.

Nothing like regular “jazz”, this finds the rhythm section deepening the way it lurches through this groove, while Iyer plays largely like a drummer, striking his right hand in staccato jabs while his left thumps in an octave pattern. And this combination of elements evolves and builds until the waves of contrasting rhythms simply can’t be any more intense. And after a brief moment of silence, the melody returns until a long slow fade allows the song to begin all over again at the piano lick. Magically, it means that the band can intensify even more greatly the second time and into a shattering, beautiful ending.

A Unity of Purpose

In these pop songs, the trio seems to achieve a unity of purpose that the other material allows less of. For example, on “MmmHmm”, the band sounds just a little bit like a fusion band (like an acoustic Return to Forever, sort of) because Crump plays a specific written pattern and Gilmore plays fast and light. But in Iyer, the trio has a leader who harnesses driving pop power with astonishing daring. The “MmmHmm” solo starts out as a simple scramble of notes and then gets deliciously weirder and more scintillating. It forces Crump to follow suit before the melody returns, as if a sense of dramatic risk were contagious. Which in a good band is true.

This unity of sound and purpose comes up again and again all across Accelerando. “Little Pocket Size Demons”, by Henry Threadgill, is a dashing, double-jointed joy, with a few simple groove patterns setting up a non-stop party for your ears. “Accelerando” is true to its name, letting time compress and contract in what seems like a feeling actually beyond time—yet what may impress you most is how the cycling patterns and arpeggios seem to shimmer with color and light. It works, again, because the whole band is committed to something tricky but singular.

Iyer concludes the program with its most intriguing and surprising performance, a delicate and then majestic take on Duke Ellington’s “The Village of the Virgins”. Ellington wrote this piece for a ballet, and this performance is another one that favors motion—but a swaying, insistent kind of thing. There is gospel music in it, and there is the buoyant lift of hope too.

Three As One

All of the music on Accelerando sways and swaggers, surges and shudders with power. It’s the sound of a style of music rediscovering its ability to move a whole body or a whole room. It’s the power of three men, playing like ten but mainly playing like one, who have a single conception that requires then to playing in very different ways, simultaneously.

It’s the best album of 2012 in jazz by the best band in jazz, no doubt. The Vijay Iyer Trio sounds like jazz history in real time, unfurling for your personal revelation.

Listen up: this is why music matters.