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


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

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.


From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less

The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

Keep reading... Show less

Net Neutrality and the Music Ecosystem: Defending the Last Mile

Still from Whiplash (2014) (Photo by Daniel McFadden - © Courtesy of Sundance Institute) (IMDB)

"...when the history books get written about this era, they'll show that the music community recognized the potential impacts and were strong leaders." An interview with Kevin Erickson of Future of Music Coalition.

Last week, the musician Phil Elverum, a.k.a. Mount Eerie, celebrated the fact that his album A Crow Looked at Me had been ranked #3 on the New York Times' Best of 2017 list. You might expect that high praise from the prestigious newspaper would result in a significant spike in album sales. In a tweet, Elverum divulged that since making the list, he'd sold…six. Six copies.

Keep reading... Show less

Under the lens of cultural and historical context, as well as understanding the reflective nature of popular culture, it's hard not to read this film as a cautionary tale about the limitations of isolationism.

I recently spoke to a class full of students about Plato's "Allegory of the Cave". Actually, I mentioned Plato's "Allegory of the Cave" by prefacing that I understood the likelihood that no one had read it. Fortunately, two students had, which brought mild temporary relief. In an effort to close the gap of understanding (perhaps more a canyon or uncanny valley) I made the popular quick comparison between Plato's often cited work and the Wachowski siblings' cinema spectacle, The Matrix. What I didn't anticipate in that moment was complete and utter dissociation observable in collective wide-eyed stares. Example by comparison lost. Not a single student in a class of undergraduates had partaken of The Matrix in all its Dystopic future shock and CGI kung fu technobabble philosophy. My muted response in that moment: Whoa!

Keep reading... Show less

'The Art of Confession' Ties Together Threads of Performance

Allen Ginsberg and Robert Lowell at St. Mark's Church in New York City, 23 February 1977

Scholar Christopher Grobe crafts a series of individually satisfying case studies, then shows the strong threads between confessional poetry, performance art, and reality television, with stops along the way.

Tracing a thread from Robert Lowell to reality TV seems like an ominous task, and it is one that Christopher Grobe tackles by laying out several intertwining threads. The history of an idea, like confession, is only linear when we want to create a sensible structure, the "one damn thing after the next" that is the standing critique of creating historical accounts. The organization Grobe employs helps sensemaking.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.