Music

Vijay Iyer: Tragicomic

The rising jazz pianist takes a stab at transforming the tone of the 21st century with a visionary album that blends the artistic and the intellectual.


Vijay Iyer

Tragicomic

Contributors: Vijay Iyer, Rudresh Manhanthappa, Stephen Crump, Marcus Gilmore
Label: Sunnyside
US Release Date: 2008-04-22
UK Release Date: Available as import
Amazon
iTunes

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.

8

Music

Books

Film

Recent
Music

A Certain Ratio Return with a Message of Hope on 'ACR Loco'

Inspired by 2019's career-spanning box set, legendary Manchester post-punkers A Certain Ratio return with their first new album in 12 years, ACR Loco.

Books

Oscar Hijuelos' 'Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love' Dances On

Oscar Hijuelos' dizzyingly ambitious foot-tapping family epic, Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love, opened the door for Latinx writers to tell their stories in all their richness.

Music

PM Picks Playlist 2: Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES, SOUNDQ

PopMatters Picks Playlist features the electropop of Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES' stunning dream folk, Polish producer SOUNDQ, the indie pop of Pylon Heights, a timely message from Exit Kid, and Natalie McCool's latest alt-pop banger.

Film

'Lost Girls and Love Hotels' and Finding Comfort in Sadness

William Olsson's Lost Girls and Love Hotels finds optimism in its message that life tears us apart and puts us back together again differently.

Music

Bright Eyes' 'Down in the Weeds' Is a Return to Form and a Statement of Hope

Bright Eyes may not technically be emo, but they are transcendently expressive, beatifically melancholic. Down in the Weeds is just the statement of grounding that we need as a respite from the churning chaos around us.

Film

Audrey Hepburn + Rome = Grace, Class, and Beauty

William Wyler's Roman Holiday crosses the postcard genre with a hardy trope: Old World royalty seeks escape from stuffy, ritual-bound, lives for a fling with the modern world, especially with Americans.

Music

Colombia's Simón Mejía Plugs Into the Natural World on 'Mirla'

Bomba Estéreo founder Simón Mejía electrifies nature for a different kind of jungle music on his debut solo album, Mirla.

Music

The Flaming Lips Reimagine Tom Petty's Life in Oklahoma on 'American Head'

The Flaming Lips' American Head is a trip, a journey to the past that one doesn't want to return to but never wants to forget.

Music

Tim Bowness of No-Man Discusses Thematic Ambition Amongst Social Division

With the release of his seventh solo album, Late Night Laments, Tim Bowness explores global tensions and considers how musicians can best foster mutual understanding in times of social unrest.

Music

Angel Olsen Creates a 'Whole New Mess'

No one would call Angel Olsen's Whole New Mess a pretty album. It's much too stark. But there's something riveting about the way Olsen coos to herself that's soft and comforting.

Film

What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .

Music

Masma Dream World Go Global and Trippy on "Sundown Forest" (premiere)

Dancer, healer, musician Devi Mambouka shares the trippy "Sundown Forest", which takes listeners deep into the subconscious and onto a healing path.

Music

Alright Alright's "Don't Worry" Is an Ode for Unity in Troubling Times (premiere)

Alright Alright's "Don't Worry" is a gentle, prayerful tune that depicts the heart of their upcoming album, Crucible.

Music

'What a Fantastic Death Abyss': David Bowie's 'Outside' at 25

David Bowie's Outside signaled the end of him as a slick pop star and his reintroduction as a ragged-edged arty agitator.

Music

Dream Folk's Wolf & Moon Awaken the Senses with "Eyes Closed" (premiere)

Berlin's Wolf & Moon are an indie folk duo with a dream pop streak. "Eyes Closed" highlights this aspect as the act create a deep sense of atmosphere and mood with the most minimal of tools.

Television

Ranking the Seasons of 'The Wire'

Years after its conclusion, The Wire continues to top best-of-TV lists. With each season's unique story arc, each viewer is likely to have favorites.

Film

Paul Reni's Silent Film 'The Man Who Laughs' Is Serious Cinema

There's so much tragedy present, so many skullduggeries afoot, and so many cruel and vindictive characters in attendance that a sad and heartbreaking ending seems to be an obvious given in Paul Reni's silent film, The Man Who Laughs.

Music

The Grahams Tell Their Daughter "Don't Give Your Heart Away" (premiere)

The Grahams' sweet-sounding "Don't Give Your Heart Away" is rooted in struggle, inspired by the couples' complicated journey leading up to their daughter's birth.


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.