Vijay Iyer Trio 2024
Photo: Ogata / ECM Records

Vijay Iyer, Linda May Han Oh, and Tyshawn Sorey Find ‘Compassion’

The Vijay Iyer Trio’s new album Compassion contains some of the pianist’s most immediately enjoyable music without sacrificing any of his usual complexity.

Vijay Iyer Trio
2 February 2024

To understand pianist Vijay Iyer‘s latest release, you must understand the joy of a good haunting. Or at least the joy through a good haunting. Nearly two years have passed since Iyer’s ensemble project Ghosts Everywhere I Go (inspired by the writings of Eve L. Ewing), but the spirits persist. By tracing a lingering past, Iyer – accompanied by percussionist Tyshawn Sorey and bassist Linda May Han Oh – finds more to celebrate than to mourn. Certainly, melancholy appears along with questions about what could have been, but the trio find an unlikely exuberance in their search. With stellar compositions, performances, and energy, Iyer’s new album Compassion contains some of his most immediately enjoyable music without sacrificing any of his usual complexity.

His cover of Stevie Wonder’s “Overjoyed” highlights the group’s approach. Vijay Iyer plays with heightened zest, modeling his rendition more on the version done by the late Chick Corea, whose piano Iyer uses. The artist sounds as if he can barely contain himself. Where Wonder pushed into the deep satisfaction of his emotion, Iyer flies around with it, Sorey’s light touches supporting him as he goes until both make room for Oh. The volume lowers, but not the excitement; it sounds as if Oh and Iyer find freedom in reinventing the well-known melody, pleasure in variety itself.

From title to tone, that piece makes the joy explicit, but the feeling runs throughout Compassion. The following cut, “Maelstrom”, darkens the sound just a little, but the lightness of Iyer’s fingers makes the song what it is, a flurry of runs that sound less like storm and chaos and more like a release. Iyer’s left hand and Oh’s bass find a steady pulse that almost hides within the flurries but serves as a necessary anchor. Much of the record sounds on the edge of spiraling somewhere strange, but the trio hold everything together with creative adherence.

A string of tracks late in Compassion come from Ghosts Everywhere I Go. The most notable of these, “It Goes”, slows the LP to a meditative pace. It originally accompanied a poem that imagined Emmitt Till given the chance to live out his life, and, even absent words, the piece presents time for poignant reflection. This cut fades softly out, but after a few seconds of silence, “Free Spirits / Drummer’s Song” (taken from the work of John Stubblefield and Geri Allen) brings the record back to its general sense of emotional liberation. After “It Goes”, it’s a nice loop back to the start of the ghost sequence, rebuilding to match either end of “Where I Am”.

One other track looks back specifically to someone who has passed, with “Arch” honoring “Archbishop Desmond Tutu”. This cut, too, avoids the elegaic, choosing to focus on the power of that man’s work, bringing extra verve. Iyer could carry this composition off as a solo performance, the timing of his two hands in perfect relationship, but Oh’s texture makes the song special even before she takes over the lead. Sorey gives the track a pause-push drive as if propelled in a sequence of surges. The force accumulates, with Iyer’s low-end work providing the foundation for all the elements to make a grand statement.

By the end of Compassion, the haunting is clear, with the ghosts of past heroes, musicians, and representatives ever-present. The point of these spirits isn’t to lead us to mourning or despair but to see the persevering enthusiasm amid an increasingly complex and unfriendly world. Iyer places his full vision under the concept of “compassion”, but he leads to that point only by finding joy, excitement, and gratitude for the inspirations that have helped him see what he has to offer.

RATING 8 / 10