Photo: Lena Adasheva

Vijay Iyer Sextet: Far From Over

The everywhere-at-once pianist has recorded with his sextet, using a bank of horns for the first time and touching several different modes. An album of surprise, tradition, and exploration. But it grooves too.
Vijay Iyer Sextet
Far From Over

Pianist and composer Vijay Iyer has been so prolific and eclectic during the last 20-plus years that it taxes your musical memory. Sure, there is his trio with Stephan Crump and Marcus Gilmore that blew our ears open with Historicity in 2009 and then Break Stuff in 2015, but before that he seemed telepathic in multiple quartet dates with alto saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa. And wasn’t be making hip hop records with Mike Ladd and orchestral music for dance and film? Somewhere in there he won a MacArthur and became a music professor at Harvard and became artist in residence at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

But in all that work, he had never recorded with a group of horns, a front line of brass and reeds.

Far From Over is ambitious, varied, and thrilling. If you are tempted to see it as a more conventional “jazz” record from someone who has worked in many different forms, I suppose that’s okay. The instrumentation here does mimic Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers: trumpet (actually cornet and flugelhorn, from Graham Haynes), tenor sax (Mark Shim), alto sax (Steve Lehman), bass (Crump), and drums (Tyshawn Sorey). But the better comparison is certainly to Herbie Hancock’s Mwandishi Sextet, fusion’s lost band, the one that gets the fewest shoutouts while deserving so very many.

Like Hancock’s group, this sextet exploits key assets: a brilliant, orchestral drummer, a sly and expressive brass player, cutting saxophonists, and a leader and pianist whose compositions are both challenging and memorable. “Nope” makes the connection most emphatically — a gorgeous funk tune that is as greasy and hip as any of today’s Robert Glasper tracks but has more historic weight. The twinned saxophones, jousting over the groove, bring to mind the early Steve Coleman M-Base recordings. Iyer’s ghostly Fender Rhodes playing within the rhythm section is the hook to the Mwandishi group.

“End of the Tunnel” also brings to mind early ‘70s fusion, evoking Miles Davis with echoed horn and a searching electric rhythm section. Iyer uses the Rhodes to put questions into the music, tipping his hat to the great Corea/Jarrett/Hancock playing from the late ‘60s and early ‘70s recordings. Only two minutes long, this track (and its title) nevertheless suggests that the early ‘70s Davis and Hancock music was something close to a lost spot in the music, a cul-de-sac, a question never quite answered.

This, however, is only one strain that runs strong in Far From Over.

Some of the tunes here are closer to what I’m calling the “New Jazz” — the quirky, complex, angular, and precise music that flows from Henry Threadgill and that tradition. Often sounding like classical “new music” but with seamlessly incorporated improvisation, the New Jazz plays with time and harmony like they were variables in an MIT calculus class, and it experiments with texture, voicings, and form. For example, Iyer builds “Into Action” on a piano ostinato that sets up tricky syncopations, making a funky 4/4 time sound more complex. The horn theme is mostly staccato bursts through which a few longer lines weave. Listening to it feels like you are dodging jabs in a boxing ring. But Iyer doesn’t do New Jazz by the book. He gives the band room to groove within the structure of the tune. As soon as the rhythm section gets down to business behind Graham Haynes’s cornet, it’s all beautiful, jagged groove. Dancing allowed and encouraged.

What you have to love about Iyer as an arranger, though, is that he has tricks up his sleeve. “Into Action” has you dancing, and he brings back the theme, the following piano solo is set over a very quiet version of the groove that gets quieter over time, horns weaving around below the keys sotto voce, until Sorey cuts out and it just dwindles away into bliss.

Myer works this trickster territory from other angles. “Wake” uses Haynes’s flugelhorn, Sorey’s cymbal effects, and a patterned piano mixed with electronics to create a buzzing, tinkling soundscape. (It could almost be one of the slow-developing pieces from Sorey’s new Verisimilitude. “Poles” finds a groove for Lehman’s solo that simulates the stuttering hip-hop rhythms that jazz has learned to elasticize well. The title track exploits Iyer’s knack for melody, making “Far From Over” the hookiest kind of New Jazz. Iyer’s piano solo here is magnificent, with the horns coming in on the tail and creating a complex interaction.

A third style in which this band excels is the straight up cooker. “Good on the Ground” may be tricky, but it gallops at your ears with its overlaid time signatures no impediment to swing. Bass, drums, piano, and pulsing horns all seem independent of each other but driving with the same destination. Shim takes the first solo, catching fire over this same polyrhythmic thatch of musical kindling. Sorey gets a spot to shine all alone and sounds like three drummers, minimum, just as this sextet could be a big band on this track. “Down to the Wire” begins as an uptempo workout for the trio, then the super-short, boppish theme plugs into the groove for maybe eight bars, setting up Shim for another flame throwing solo. A longer, swaying theme follows as if Iyer needed this much runway to get this groover down to earth at last.

Finally, Iyer is a talented music poet. In what some might consider a nod to the history of his label, ECM, he creates beautiful themes that seem to float in space on sheer lyricism. “For Amiri Baraka” is an attractive minor melody, developed slowly by the trio with increasing volume and tension, then easing back down. No one solos. “Threnody” is a delicate, strumming theme from Iyer’s piano that spins and grows more abstract until Lehman’s alto enters to make things more tart. Lehman cuts his lines across and back away from the tune’s harmonic structure, finding dissonances that resolve for a moment and then open back up. Haynes and Shim come in with long held harmonies beneath that solo, lifting the whole group sound up into the clouds. The slow descent from that height ends the album, gorgeously.

By the end of the meal, that is Far From Over, you are sated but not heavy in your chair. The range of flavors is huge, but the portions are modest. Most of the performances come in around six minutes — enough space to allow these excellent soloists to stretch out while still packing in more music. You get the sense that Vijay Iyer has been storing this music for a while, writing in different phases, imagining how good it would sound once he got it recorded.

The result is an affirmation of a sort. Iyer, of course, knows the jazz canon (and several other canons) backward and forward, but with Far From Over he has planted himself within it even as he continues to expand the music’s boundaries. It is tempting to read the title as a comment on the state of jazz itself, but that’s probably just the way a critic things.

Regardless, the latest from Vijay Iyer stokes flames of the past and sets a few new fires as well. Like I said — it’s cookin’.

RATING 8 / 10