To spark discussion, the Walker invites local artists and critics to write overnight reviews of our performances. The ongoing Re:View series shares a diverse array of independent voices and opinions; it doesn’t reflect the views or opinions of the Walker or its curators. Today, Filmmaker and Writer Justin Schell shares his perspective on Thursday night’s concert by Vijay Iyer. Agree or disagree? Feel free to share your thoughts in comments!
Vijay Iyer opened his two-night stand at the Walker not with a flourish on the piano, but a few low, soft notes from a Rhodes positioned to his right. With these notes, Iyer started the audience on a three-set trek through multiple lineages of jazz and musical history, while firmly in the innovations and technological possibilities of today.
The first set featured Iyer and trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith, who Iyer later in the concert called both his “hero and friend.” The set was a world premiere and seemed to be a mix of improvisation and written composition. Iyer was on the aforementioned Rhodes, piano, laptop, and an audio controller, while Smith was on trumpet, played with the bell down into a microphone on the floor that added fluctuating amounts of reverb. As their duet moved between many different textures and moods, some pointillistic, others featuring slow blocks of sound from Iyer’s piano and electronics, it was hard to get a grasp on the overall piece apart from its sections that effortless blended into each other. The Rhodes and reverbed trumpet definitely gave some parts a Bitches Brew feel, but that wasn’t the only historical referent. At one point, a digital ghost of Smith’s trumpet (I couldn’t tell whether it was sampled previously or live) sounded like an old 78 of a trumpet in jazz’s earliest years, before it evaporated away as Smith’s muted trumpet brought us back into the present. Incredibly nuanced, it deftly brought together the past and the present in a few seconds, while the whole set did this in bringing together two generations of experimental jazz, Smith representing the past, yet decidedly not forgotten or unimportant lineage of the AACM, and the new generation represented by Iyer.
After a short pause, Iyer gave the audience three solo pieces in a much more conventional vein. No laptops or other technology, just him on piano. He opened with a stunning rendition of Monk’s “Work”; at some points, I couldn’t believe I wasn’t listening to Monk himself play the McGuire Theater. The other two pieces were Iyer originals, and in these he displayed his technical skills, his hands a blur as he raced up and down the keys of the piano. At one point, he effortlessly picked off ascending octaves with his index finger, a small detail that for me revealed so much about him as a player.
Finally, Iyer was joined by bassist Stephan Crump and drummer Marcus Gilmore for a much more groove-oriented set. The three musicians were a study in contrasts: Crump played with an intensity symbolized by the bulging vein in his neck as he sang along to the notes his hands played, while Gilmore looked cool and calm, even if his arms and legs were anything but as they traversed his drums. (As Iyer pointed out, Gilmore is the grandson of the famous jazz drummer Roy Haynes.) Iyer was somewhere in the middle, getting into the groove of the music and joyfully digging what his trio contributed. Their set ranged through both original material and covers, including a surprising genealogy of popular music: Rod Temperton’s song “The Star of a Story” (from his time in Heatwave) to Michael Jackson’s “Human Nature.”
These covers, which reminded me more of the Bad Plus than most other conventional jazz outfits around today, made me reflect on jazz more as a philosophical idea, rather than a solely musical form that has now become just another genre to be demarcated and sold in a record store. I think back to bebop, which took all of the most popular standards and reworked them into something else, and it’s this lineage of jazz, one that encompasses a willful looking out into musical worlds beyond the conventional, that Iyer, along with everyone else who joined him on stage tonight, represents.
Check back tomorrow for my thoughts on Vijay Iyer and Mike Ladd, as well as Tirtha, which features Iyer, Prasanna and guitar, and Nitin Mitta and tabla.