Vijay Iyer Trio – Break Stuff
(ECM. 470 8937. CD Review by Patrick Hadfield)
Pianist Vijay Iyer‘s latest album is broadly a resetting of compositions for some larger ensembles for his long standing trio. The process of deconstructing them – stripping them down and reforming them for a classic jazz trio of piano, bass and drums – Iyer sees as “breaks”: the space between the notes. In doing so, he acknowledges a wealth of influences, including many outside a usual jazz context: “breakdowns, break-beats and break dancing…” They can all be heard on this CD – one track, Hood, is a tribute to a techno DJ, Robert Hood (I only know this because it says so on Iyer’s liner notes!) – but within an acoustic jazz format.
It is an interesting set of tunes from one of jazz’s more searching performers. There is an emphasis on rhythm; much of Hood consists of the interplay between very simple piano figures, subtly changing bass, and complex, shifting drums patterns. The result on that track is not far from serial music – as if Steve Reich or Arvo Pärt wrote jazz. Some of the tracks have a kind of jerky insistence, as if the rhythms and melodies were trying to go in different directions.
Other tracks really swing; the contrast this creates is very effective. There are three covers on the CD. The trio’s version of Monk’s Work is played pretty straight, recognisably Monk, and demonstrates the trio’s ability whilst Coltrane’s Countdown is given the trio’s breakdown treatment. Billy Strayhorn’s Blood Count, his final composition, is a beautiful, slow, melancholy interpretation for solo piano, full of pathos.
The title track has an evolving, almost spiky rhythm, as if drummer Marcus Gilmore is both pushing forward and holding back, balanced by pulses from Stephan Crump‘s bass.
Three of the other tracks are based on birds – Starlings, Geese and Wrens, all from Iyer’s Open City project, and a fourth is called Taking Flight. Iyer describes Open City as dealing with themes of migration, and sections of Taking Flight have a reggae rhythm whilst its opening is reminiscent of Satie or Debussy. Wrens, which closes the album, is a slow, thoughtful, rather lovely piece.
This is a compelling record, full of imaginative ideas and fascinating rhythms, trying new things whilst firmly rooted in a classic jazz context. By breaking down the tunes and putting them back together, Iyer has found space to experiment without scaring off the birds.