Vijay Iyer – Mutations
(ECM 2372. Review by Jon Turney)
Hear the opening and closing pieces on this fine album, and you would peg it as another rather lovely solo piano effort from ECM – gleaming miniatures that are all about touch and the careful use of space.
In between, though, this first effort for the label as a leader from Vijay Iyer achieves something else entirely. The main business here is a nine-part suite, Mutations, first performed in 2005. The title alludes to cell biology, and the music focusses to some extent on the power of small, slowly building variations. Few of the pieces adopt the minimalism that might suggest, though. They exploit the rich textures of a string quartet in constantly changing ways, with Iyer joining as a fifth voice on piano in around half of them, and overseeing some subtle electronic interventions as well.
The string writing – most of these are through-composed pieces – is quietly dramatic and seems uncannily in tune with the sounds of these instruments (Iyer has played violin for much of his life), in a way that many contemporary recordings with strings do not quite manage. There are moments of contention and contemplation, pulsating figures pitched against often acerbic melodic lines, and constant small surprises, especially on pieces where the players take up Iyer’s invitation to deploy his written phrases as they see fit. There are moments of high emotion, too, though not achieved by conventional means. There may be more of them, indeed, than in some of Iyer’s piano trio work, when his interest in a more mathematical purity of pattern sometimes gets the better of him. All four string players have a richness of tone that gives the simplest of gestures emotional weight, and they and Iyer play off each other with a quiet fervour that compels.
I am not too familiar with modern string quartet efforts, but this one sounded remarkably fresh. It is certainly different from any others I’ve sampled, and is still revealing itself on repeat listenings. It clearly will not work for everyone – notices have been mainly good but the reviewer in Jazz Times just seemed baffled by the whole thing. Does it have much to do with jazz? Possibly not. Is it a brilliant musical success? I think so.