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Vijay Iyer Trio + Kaja Draksler/ Susana Santos Silva at Jazzfest Berlin 2021

Vijay Iyer Trio with Linda Han-Oh and Tyshawn Sorey / Kaja Draksler & Susana Santos Silva

(Pierre Boulez Saal, JazzFest Berlin 2021. Review by AJ Dehany)

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Vijay Iyer Trio. Screengrab from Arte Livestream

The Pierre Boulez Saal in Berlin is a golden egg designed by Frank Gehry to yoke audience and artist together and hatch an intimate mutual response through music. There’s no stage or separation between the oval central floor space and the raked seats in the round. This makes for an unusual experience for orchestral encounters, but jazz fans may be more used to being at eyeball level with their heroes. It does mean you have to be careful, or lucky, where you sit. As soon as the Vijay Iyer Trio started I realized why my clever seat-neighbours had disappeared beforehand. I was at a reverse diagonal to Tyshawn Sorey’s kit (Gretsch & TBS drums, Istanbul cymbals— yes, we were that close!), and directly behind Linda May Han Oh’s bass rig, with Vijay Iyer’s piano on the other side of that. So all I could hear was drums, no bass at all, and a very far away piano. 

The ‘sound’ at a concert isn’t something you tend to dwell on unless it’s especially good or, more usually, especially bad. Drums can cause endless headaches (literally) at venues really intended for the string-heavy padding of classical repertoire. Having experienced Kamasi Washington at the Royal Albert Hall, all I can say to that notoriously unbalanced London venue is come back, all is forgiven. Even when I got up and legged it across to the other side of the venue to stand behind Vijay Iyer’s piano, which had had its lid completely removed (presumably to make it louder), the drums were thunderous in the hall. For the whole concert it was very hard to hear, let alone listen to, the actual music. The JazzFest Berlin live feed sound mix is better in that it has the piano distinct and at the forefront, but the bass still isn’t cutting through, and now the drums sound far away.

It’s a shame because the standing-ovation deserving performance itself was tremendous. To make it in the hard smash and grab of  the City, New York musicians have serious chops, have to be firm, omnicompetent, a bit hard-edged, and it helps to be good-humoured, because god it’s tough out there. You could hear some of that New York sound at the Saal and in the album Uneasy, released on ECM this year and performed here on the first night of their European Tour (including a 14 November date at the London Jess Festival). All three of them are complete fiends, and two of them have been awarded the MacArthur ‘genius’ grant, so each of them has it all. It’s not ‘warm’ as such, but they command your attention, and the lengthy workings of compositions gathered over two decades (including Geri Allen’s Drummer’s Song and if you can recognise it, the Cole Porter standard Night & Day). The title track Uneasy has epic changes and a triplet feel and it sounds, whisper it, kind of majestic, and a little bit, well, heroic. It ranges from oddly timed piano figures to intense vamps with humorous elements creeping in like some dementing take on boogie boogie in a hard bop shell, before stretching out into a simple but expansive E to C two-chord meditation like a post-rock band would play. It’s stadium rock jazz without the rock (or the stadium).

Susanna Santos Silva (L) and Kaja Draksler

In the Pierre Boulez Saal before this trio was an equally impressive yoking, the duo of Slovenian pianist Kaja Draksler and Portuguese trumpeter Susana Santos Silva. Draksler’s own recent trio work with Swedish bassist Peter Eldh and German drummer Christian Lillinger as Punkt.Vrt.Plastik could go head-to-head with the Iyer Trio for the award of most insanely ridiculous trio lineup in the world. Their fluidity is heart-stopping, jumping mystifyingly across rhythms, invoking polyrhythms, exploring unusual harmonic senses and unusual sonic spaces while retaining a fresh European approach to jazz; slightly darker and more wilfully arty than their New York counterparts, but just as commanding. Going on, Draksler’s duo work with Susana Santos Silva has the same audible sense of camaraderie, trust and fluidity, and an otherworldly quality that (in contrast to the Iyer set) with a clarity of sound and purpose that brought a unique atmosphere and wonder to the Pierre Boulez Saal.

The visual impact alone of the two musicians in the round facing each other at piano and mic, both sporting the shortest of crewcuts and the longest of DM boots, alerts you to a forthright contemporaneousness that the music expresses in its Cagean exploration of extended techniques, timbre and dislocations of harmony. A JazzFest Berlin concert “Fine Tuning Difference” will devote itself to unusual tuning systems and detunings, indicating that this area is a hot topic in the music. It was great to hear Santos Silva away from the dense intensities of her “Impermanence” Quintet. She began with microtonal fluctuations taking us immediately into an uneasy space (uneasier than Vijay Iyer’s Uneasy) with Draksler later issuing knell-like bell sounds with the prepared piano. Through strange chamber music they went through an agitated deconstruction of stride music with humorous wah-wahs of the trumpet mute and plonky piano, concluding after a solo like a flock of geese or a freight train with uncanny ratcheting echoes. A music-box ending brought their set to a close on a sweet note of disarming naïf.

Then they went off arm in arm with a sense of friendship and easy but profound rapport which is at the core of what at its best makes this area of music compelling—not the cold depersonalisation of Cagean aesthetics or the virtuosic swagger of the New York scene, but the redeployment of those languages to create a portrait of connected sensibilities. On the wall of the Saal itself there is a diection-setting statement from Pierre Boulez himself that is totemic: “One should essentially see concerts as a means of communication, as animated contact between active participants, be they listeners or creators.”

AJ Dehany writes about music, art and stuff.

LINK: Watch free OnDemand on Arte

2 replies »

  1. Seems like the sound mix is a general problem with Vijay’s current tour. I attended the recent gig at the QEH and experienced the exact same problem. All drums and no piano, no bass. It was very frustrating, since I could tell there was something interesting going on with the piano and bass, but really couldn’t make it out most of the time. I was also seated close to the stage, whereas friends seated further back, and able to benefit from the mixed PA, didn’t suffer so much. It is a feature of Tyshawn Sorey’s playing that it is often loud, so there should have been better preparation for this.


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