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Vijay Iyer Trio: The Best Rhythmic Cacophonous Swirl Today

J.D. Swerzenski
Contributing Writer

I, like most music bloggers, am unnecessarily obsessed with best of lists. So much so in fact that I felt compelled this past week to compile a premature list of my favorite jazz releases of the year, one which I was surprised to see, consisted almost entirely of piano trio records: The Bad Plus, Trio M, Alfredo Rodriguez, Brad Mehldau, etc.

I wasn’t exactly sure as to why until last night, when I had the chance to see the Vijay Iyer Trio, who put out my favorite record (jazz or otherwise) of this year, Accelerando.

Taking to Chicago’s Mayne Stage this past Thursday, the band spent the majority of their 2 ½ hour set pulling material from both Accelerando and 2009’s Historicity, two records that affirm, in my mind at least, the piano trio as the most potent unit for creative and forward thinking jazz on the scene today. Seeing them live only strengthened this view.

Immediately evident was the power of the three personalities on stage: Vijay, exuding a scholarly sort of charm that belied his abstracted and deeply searching approach to his instrument; bassist Stephan Crump, radiating energy as he sang along to every note he struck, as if he were shouting commands to his fingers; and drummer Marcus Gilmore, whose rapid-fire fills played against his nonchalant demeanor, a style that recalled ?uestlove as much as Elvin Jones.

But it’s the way these personalities mesh that matters, and watching the trio work out their remarkably complex group improvisations live was a remarkable, if occasionally baffling, experience. They almost never stuck to the traditional head-solo-solo-solo-head format. In fact for the first hour, there was almost no time in which any member of the band dropped out. Even while one put together what might be called a solo, the others found a way to work in responses, ways to goad and shift each other in new directions. Often this meant building up to a cacophonous swirl, all three seemingly rocketing off in different directions until out of nowhere, they would lock in together to stick a perfect landing, a feat that always elicited more than a few gasps from audience.

It’s the type of group improvisation that first drew me to guys like Charles Mingus and Miles Davis’ second quintet recordings, a form which seems to be reaching a creative peak with some of today’s leading piano trios, of which Iyer’s group arguably leads. Beyond that, the trio format has seemed so adept at incorporating new styles (see BADBADNOTGOOD, Yaron Hermon, Brad Mehldau) in ways that traditional horn-led bands have not. A moment towards the end of the trio’s second set comes to mind, in which Gilmore laid down a hip-hop inflected backbeat, with Crump countering with a bit of Charlie Haden-inspired free jazz strikes, and Iyer floating on top with a delicate line of Chopin-like serenity. And somehow, it totally worked.

Rhythmically-speaking, no one is touching this band. And while few pieces in the set could be called ‘tuneful’ (“Human Nature” being an exception), it’s hard to register a complaint when they pull out something like “Hood.” A stomping, martial piece, the band slowly veered off into individual directions, much like three metronomes ticking away to their own beat, only to patiently work their way into thrilling sync. (this, too, came to mind) I recently saw Jason Marsalis perform a trick like this during a drum solo; however, watching a group of musicians that locked in with each other pull this off put it in another league.

The trio closed their second set strong with few Accelerando highlights including Henry Threadgill’s “Little Pocket Sized Demons,” MJ’s “Human Nature,” and the monstrous closer “Optimism.” Arguably the best moment came when during a quiet piano interlude, the inevitable interruption of someone’s phone going off sounded in the form of an iPhone meeting alert. Iyer, ever aware, picked up on it and worked the little motif into a flighty, hugely crowd-pleasing solo.
After an easily earned encore, Vijay and crew returned with “Dogon A.D.”, a fractured, intense piece from Historicity that, despite its challenging nature, brought the crowd at Mayne Stage to their feet for the second time of the night.

It was a fitting close for a band that is all too confident in their ability to rework the direction of jazz one release, and show, at a time.

J.D. Swerzenski is the operations manager of KRTU San Antonio and a contributor to the San Antonio Current.