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 Friday’s night’s concert by Vijay Iyer. Agree or disagree? Feel free to share your thoughts in comments!
Walker Performing Arts curator Philip Bither opened his introduction with an anecdote about the “sound of someone reaching” as a way to explain pianist Vijay Iyer’s motivations for making music. While “reaching” usually connotes over-reaching, taking yourself into some place that you’re not familiar with, that you don’t have the evidence or chops to belong, Friday night’s music offered a different idea of it: trying to explore something new, something beyond what’s normally done. This was certainly on display Thursday night, but it was even more so Friday night, the second night of this two-night mini-festival of Vijay Iyer at the Walker.
The night opened with Iyer and Mike Ladd, Iyer on the same set-up of Thursday night (piano, Rhodes, laptop, and various controllers) and Ladd on the microphone and what looked to be a homemade contraption of a mini version of the Big keyboard and an immense box of dials and knobs. These two have collaborated for a decade, and they performed pieces from their latest project, Holding It Down, which draws on the poetry and memories of dreams by US soldiers who were in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Surprisingly, the music that Iyer wrote, be it for the piano or the electronic landscapes that joined his piano, was often upbeat, and sometimes startlingly beautiful. There were certainly darker moments in the music and poetry that reflected the horrors of combat and war, whether it be the stark image of “blood-soaked sheets” or, in a different yet no less stark vein the image of a soldier circling his mother’s geraniums in razor wire to protect against the onslaught of his dream world by Nazis. These words and images were made all the more sharp with Ladd’s delivery, his gruff voice and the body it emanated from seeming to channel the lives of those whose words they come from. The duo ended the night with “Plastic Bag,” a piece about a Senegalese street vendor from their collaboration In What Language? The piece describes the vendor as he’s waiting for a flight, a package of jollof rice providing sustenance, and the words and music deftly blend the man’s identity with that of his plastic “Dreampot” bag, filled with wares to take back to Senegal. Ladd’s words reveal a much larger scope to this man’s life as he passes from one airport to another: “Parts of this bag are older than our history.”
Like Thursday night, the second section of the program featured Iyer on solo piano. When he walked out to the applause, his face betrayed a somewhat schoolboyish excitement. “I never get to do this, so I’m going to play some standards.” Of course, there was nothing standard about how he played “Darn That Dream,” “Somewhere,” “Epistrophy,” “Giant Steps,” “Imagine,” and “Black and Tan Fantasy.”
Iyer played most of these songs like Coltrane’s live performances at the end the saxophonist’s career, with a long introduction that took elements of the melody and harmony, but in a way that the audience wasn’t quite sure what they were listening to until the melody itself came in. For “Epistrophy” and “Giant Steps,” both with instantly recognizable melodies and chord structures to Monk and Coltrane fans, he broke apart the songs to what seemed like their atomic level, moving their elements through different textures and styles as he explored the nuances of both song and instrument.
“Imagine,” though, was the most startling selection of the set. When he introduced it by saying “this is a song that everyone probably knows, written by John Lennon and Yoko Ono,” I figured it was “Imagine,” and I was ready to grumble and grouse for his selection of what has become a thoroughly clichéd and hackneyed song, voided of whatever political impact it once held. While Iyer did indeed play “Imagine,” I should’ve known that it would’ve been different than any other version I’d ever heard. A roiling left hand in the lower registers of the piano started it off, and when the familiar melodic elements came in, they were in a minor key, lending a much darker cast to the song. It was almost as if Iyer wanted to symbolize the darkness of the world we need to imagine ourselves out of, rather than what it’s used normally used for, a toothless celebration of the world we have now.
The last set of the evening featured Tirtha, Iyer’s trio with tabla player Nitin Mitta and guitarist Prasanna. Before the group took the stage, I heard one audience member behind me say, “Let’s see what his Indian side has to offer.” Of course, it wasn’t this simple. Iyer has expressed in a variety of contexts that this is not “Indian jazz” or any other type of fusion-y endeavor. It was, of course, full of Indian, and specifically South Indian Carnatic elements, as Prasanna has innovatively transferred the Carnatic playing style to the electric guitar. (He was aided by spraying lubricant on his strings between songs to help facilitate the rapid movements across the fret board.) Both Prasanna and Mitta are clearly masters of their craft, with Mitta’s fast-as-light fingers nearly bringing the audience to their feet after his solos. While one of Iyer’s compositions was based on a specific raga, his playing was in his own style, and not necessarily “emulating” a specific style of “Indian music.”
On songs like “Tribal Wisdom,” “Abundance,” and “Entropy and Time,” the three musicians merged their elements together organically, though not seamlessly. You can still hear the differences in their backgrounds, be it from New York (like Iyer) or India (like Mitta and Prasanna). The music of Tirtha, named after a Sanskrit word meaning to cross over from reality to nirvana, resists easy categorization in this era of “world music,” and is just one of the many sides of Iyer’s incredible body of work displayed—and celebrated—at the Walker.
Repeatedly over the two-night festival, Iyer expressed his gratitude to the Walker for providing this opportunity, and it was clear that he didn’t want it to end. The audience got two encores, pushing the concert to over three hours: the first a “rock song” called “Gauntlet” with the trio, and then joining with Mike Ladd for something “they didn’t know.” It was one last example of reaching beyond for the evening and, as the guitar, tabla, and piano began to mesh with the words of Ladd’s “Planet 10,” it was clear that everyone on stage not only reached beyond, but also leapt beyond, with everything they had.