Music

Vijay Iyer Sextet: Far From Over

Photo: Lena Adasheva

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

Label: ECM
US Release Date: 2017-08-25
UK Release Date: 2016-08-25
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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’.

8

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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