Vijay Iyer Trio 2021
Photo: Craig Marsden / Courtesy of Shore Fire Media

Pianist Vijay Iyer Looks Back and Ahead with His New Trio on ‘Uneasy’

Vijay Iyer Trio’s Uneasy is a set of modern piano jazz covering a remarkable range, featuring three brilliant musical imaginations playing well together.

Vijay Iyer
9 April 2020

In the last decade, Vijay Iyer slipped the bonds of being just another jazz pianist in a crowded field of great musicians. Maybe this is just what happens after you win a MacArthur (among several other) Fellowship and get a lifetime appointment to the Harvard faculty in both Music and African and African American Studies departments. The first sentence of his Wikipedia entry quotes the New York Times calling him a “social conscience, multimedia collaborator, system builder, rhapsodist, historical thinker and multicultural gateway”. How does anyone live up to that kind of hype?

Iyer’s various projects, remarkably, reflect that range. He has scored films; written for ballet and for the “classical” concert hall; collaborated with Mike Ladd on poetry/hip-hop work; worked with leading figures in the New Jazz such as Roscoe Mitchell, Wadada Leo Smith, and Steve Coleman; and led or co-led bands of improvising musicians that have included Fieldwork (with saxophonist Steve Lehman and drummers Elliot Humberto Kavee or Tyshawn Sorey), a quartet (with saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa), a longstanding trio (with bassist Stephan Crump and drummer Marcus Gilmore), and a recent sextet (including Crump, Sorey, Lehman, and two other horns). Amidst all of that, he has found time for duo projects with Smith and pianist Craig Taborn and a variety of curation projects. After starting his adult life with an undergraduate Yale degree in math and physics and then a Ph.D. in technology and the arts at Berkeley, well, you get the sense that you never know in which direction Iyer will move.

The new year finds the pianist back to basics, in a sense. Uneasy features a new piano trio with Sorey again on drums but adding Linda May Han Oh on bass. Iyer is in an unmistakably retrospective mood, with nearly all the compositions on the program drawn from various sources across his career, formats, and influences. The result is a set of modern piano jazz that covers a remarkable range and features three brilliant musical imaginations that play well together.

“Configurations”, for example, dates back to Iyer’s third album, Panoptic Modes, recorded with Mahanthappa and a quartet more than 20 years ago. The trio has little trouble covering all the elements of the composition, as it is simple in one sense: build on a single basic riff or cell that swirls around on itself, defining a very unusual time signature (at times, it sounds like a version of ten beats, but subdivided in a tricky, syncopated manner) that nevertheless grooves with authority. But, of course, it also comes to sound devilishly complex because the time feeling around which the lick wraps and weaves are constantly being flipped in the air and toyed with joyously by Sorey. Iyer’s opening improvisation chatters in the treble clef and crashes into the groove down low, suggesting a McCoy Tyner lineage—with swirls and bombast in contrast, but then much lighter moments as well.

The form of “Configurations” is traditional at first: a bold solo by the leader is followed by a bass solo played over a much quieter set of pulses played by Iyer’s highest keys and Sorey’s brushes. Then Iyer and Sorey trade statements, just like a traditional band “trading fours” toward the end of a jazz performance. To end things, however, the band not only restates the theme but also makes time elastic, slowing it down, speeding it up, changing it slightly but in perfect coordination. It is dazzling—seeming to give the listener every chance to really understand it even though, honestly, I dare you.

“Configurations” is not the only track that shows the trio at play with small, simple themes that are then manipulated in complex, dazzling ways. “Children of Flint” uses just a single eight-bar melodic theme from a composition that Iyer wrote for a classical solo viola. The beat is both swaying and subtly subdivided, with a gentle chord progression suggested for the improvisations. To match the tune’s title, the trio performs the lilting theme as a gentle lullaby, but they also allow the piano solo to rise into an unsettling climax that is thrilling and agitated both. “Entrustment” was also pulled from a larger classical composition and has the quality of being boiled down to an essence. The theme toggles between two different scales, each for two measures of seven beats, with no defined melody. Iyer floats modally over this structure, spinning a rhapsody pushed into urgency by the dialog with Sorey’s trap kit and cymbals.

“Retrofit” adapts a composition that was originally written for Iyer’s jazz sextet. It is a third example of the trio making hay on a relatively simple melodic motif grounded in a complex rhythmic pattern. May Han Oh works as an anchor through much of the wildest parts of the trio’s collective improvisation, even if she never gets you to the toe-tapping stage. But rhythmic trickiness does not mean that “Retrofit” feels academic or hard to listen to—the trio constantly works in conversation around how a driven groove can mutate and build more momentum. And at the end of the performance, things resolve into a 4/4 vamp that seems—is it possible?—to have been hidden inside “Retrofit” all along.

Not that this group insists on always working as a New Jazz bafflement machine, hiding the downbeat in a swirl of fancy compositional footwork. “Touba”, although in 5/4, is also a loping 12-bar blues with a sad but memorable melodic theme. Adapted from a 2003 Iyer collaboration with Mike Ladd in a significantly different form, this track serves as a lament that compliments some of the other wrenching tunes on Uneasy. The title track “Uneasy” has a throbbing sense of forward momentum that isn’t as simple to parse as “Touba”, but it has a creeping, sinister logic that keeps attention through a continual rising and falling bass line. Urgent rather than sad, it still suggests the kind of mental state we have all gotten used to during 2020: with so much happening and hogging our attention but almost all of it less than comforting.

For listeners looking for something closer to tradition, there are two compositions here by other composers, and each trades in a bit more in something close to common time that, still, this band can pull and push in playful ways. “Drummer’s Song” is by the late Geri Allen, a pianist who was a mentor and hero to many creative musicians of the new century. This track challenges the trio to play all the harmonic and melodic elements of a very tricky tune, generating an arrangement that sounds like a playful wheel-within-a-wheel, lines going every which way between bass, piano left hand, piano right hand, and Sorey’s various limbs. The contrasting lines are developed delicately at first and then with more vigor as if Thelonious Monk had rented out an octopus for a party. As these multiple parts play out in neon orchestral colors, Sorey slings and solos all about, even after Iyer or May Han Oh takes the improvisatory lead.

The other bit of comfort food here is a version of Cole Porter’s “Night and Day” that Iyer says was inspired by the version recorded by McCoy Tyner and Joe Henderson on the saxophonist’s album Inner Urge. The trio plays it with bright, positive energy to match that model, but they move the time signature to a skipping 7/8, with that one lost beat on every other measure continually launching the performance with a pop. The drummer on the original was Elvin Jones, who brought to his 4/4 an Afro-Cuban syncopation that was unmistakable. Sorey doesn’t copy Elvin, but his fluid take on the 7/8 time puts him—again—in a spectacular conversation with the rest of the band in every measure.

Indeed, as lustrous as Iyer and May Han Oh are throughout, featured in solos that captivate, to my ears, the most overwhelming presence on Uneasyis the astonishing musician behind the trap kit. Tyshawn Sorey has seemed less like a drummer lately than like a vanguard composer who increasingly operates in classical New Music rather than the New Jazz. His trio with pianist Cory Smythe and bassist Chris Tordini tends to undermine the kind of “jazz piano trio” energy and format that Iyer plays with but embraces. Therefore, we get a happy reminder on this recording of just how fine a “jazz” drummer Sorey has always been. He swings like mad, meaning that he creates an urgent sense of forward momentum while simultaneously attending to the orchestral interest of the performances as improvised compositions being made in the moment. He is linked to his bandmates in conversation and is never less of a voice than they are.

Linda May Han Oh certainly doesn’t sound like she is playing on her very first recording with Iyer—attuned as she is to his interests and the way he wants a rhythm section to work. I particularly admire her sound and solo on “Combat Breathing”, where she is melodically arresting but also very much a “drum” herself. Her technique is not to seem like the band’s missing guitarist, soloing up high on her fingerboard, but she is perfectly able to lift her voice to the top of the sound and then seamlessly shift back into the pulse.

Iyer, himself, doesn’t tend to show off as a pianist. He has one unaccompanied piece here, “Augury”. Improvised at the end of the day’s session, it is contemplative and unflashy. Tremolos in his right hand shimmer over slow melodic movement in the left for the opening section. It is a gossamer solo that sounds like a dawn or dusk creature, light rising or fading, depending on your mood. As with the trio tracks, there is a pulsing logic, as the tremolos create the effect of small subdivisions in time, and the melody seems less important than the feeling of interconnection and motion across the full spectrum of the song.

Taken as a whole, Uneasy sounds very much like a mid-career moment—a review of the last 20 years and a reloading for what’s to come, a collaboration with an old friend, and a celebration of a new one, a mixture of youthful vigor and mature contemplation. The classic acoustic piano trio format is honored and extended, with both the preservation of traditional solos/trading statements and the use of complex time forms that alter the way that this rhythm section defines swing and plays with time. Even casual listeners can’t help but notice the exquisite “jazz” phrasing of all three players. Still, they also have fluent ease with the stuttered vocabulary of the new century, with rippling runs that use small hiccups in time to build more momentum.

Vijay Iyer’s array of musical options is now so wide and diverse that it’s easy to imagine his interest in the piano trio getting lost in the shuffle. Uneasy suggests that the format remains a rich portal for time travel in both directions.

RATING 8 / 10