Vijay Iyer and the Brentano String Quartet Create ‘Time, Place, Action’ in San Antonio

Aaron Prado didn’t plan on being on the stage last Friday night. The pianist and former KRTU music director was merely planning on attending the performance of his old teacher’s, Vijay Iyer’s, composition,Time, Place, Action, with the Brentano String Quartet, a show as part of the Musical Bridges Around the World’s Second Annual International Music Festival. He just so happened to be wearing a grey shirt and black slacks, perfect attire for sitting on a stage. Dr. Anya Grokhovski, MBAW’s artistic director and CEO, wasn’t quite up to the task that Friday evening of keeping up with the looping rhythms and odd time signatures (at least not tonight anyway). So Prado and Iyer talked it out and Friday night’s performance of Time, Place, Action went off without a hitch.

Iyer, as we in the industry and many others have noted for some time, is a highly lauded artist. The super calmly mad scientist of jazz has been garnering praise for years for his work raising the African-American art form of jazz, and mathematics to a degree, to new but accessible heights. It’s almost pat to mention his MacArthur fellowship, his professor position at Harvard, his numerous times topping the DownBeat Critics’ Poll, or any of the other praise heaped upon him that he so duly deserves. The work he’s done over the years and making clear such a voice on the piano is what really matters. He’s boiled Threadgill down to trio form, he’s played A Tribe Called Quest to the rhythm of the Fibonacci sequence, he’s making an album a year that never misses. His ECM debut, Mutations, gave some indication of what his distinctive compositional voice would sound when lent to strings. The performance on Friday, May 15, one of the few performances of this composition in the universe yet, continues with this direction.

Iyer had come through San Antonio months earlier with a variation of his trio, with bassist Stephan Crump and Tyshawn Sorey in Marcus Gilmore’s stead on drums. He noted early in the performance that this evening would be different, but he wasn’t entirely accurate. The evening was more prim and proper, a little more organized, but it still jammed if one was open to it, and in much the same voice one already expects from Iyer. His composition, Time, Place, Action, has all the conventions one would hear from Iyer but with two violins, a viola, and a cello expressing the same familiar musical inclinations.

The Brentano String Quartet of violinists Serena Canin & Mark Steinberg, viola player Misha Amory, and cellist Nina Lee are soulful players, able to perform composed pieces airily and with groove centrism. They began the night performing Debussy’s Quartet in G Minor, Op. 10, a chamber piece with a cyclical structure that seemed to sound like jazz that it was the perfect composition for an evening of melding forms. Debussy changed the game in 1893 with this piece and one could feel it in the music. The Brentano Quartet conveyed that same feeling as a wonderful opening to the night.

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Afterwards, Iyer took the stage to play three songs solo, Thelonious Monk’s “Work” (a song in Iyer’s repertoire that’s become quite the delight to hear him play), and his own compositions “Spellbound & Sacrosanct” from last year’s Mutations and the livewire “Autoscopy”. Hearing Iyer play as beautifully and brilliantly as always pitted after the string quartet gave a better indication of what would happen after the intermission. There was never a doubt that such a melding would work, particularly for those who took to Mutations, but the twenty or so minute wait only left the mind to wander about what the rest of the night would bestow, but with complete reassurance in all the players involved.

Thus the night held a great performance. Iyer’s Time, Place, Action sounds like the clear statement of where Iyer is in this sphere. The quartet sounds like a natural extension of Iyer, his busiest ring finger in the biz now exemplified in the dueling violins. The tropes are all there. They’re all playing with chromatics. They’re looping through ostinatos providing room for Iyer to solo around them (the piece’s intention was to create a place and time for this sort of action to occur; it’s about working with elements in the moment, as Iyer and all musicians try to do when they’re on their game). They’re playing in 11/8 time (which Prado explained to me through looking at Iyer’s score after the show ended later after years of my own intellectual perplexity met with an innate connection to the rhythm).

It’s a chamber piece that is in line with everything one would expect from whom so many across the globe have called a genius. There’s an aw, shucks-ism to that claim any time a MacArthur recipient is given that title, but man, last Friday was a hell of a return visit to San Antonio for Vijay Iyer after months away, and it was great to hear another side of him, even if it’s kind of the same. Perhaps every side is his good side.

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