Review: Vijay Iyer Trio

Vijay Iyer
Drawing by Geoff Winston. © 2012. All Rights Reserved

Vijay Iyer Trio
(Vortex, 1st May 2012, first night of a two-night residency; review and drawing by Geoff Winston)


Since their last visit to the Vortex a couple of years ago, Vijay Iyer's tightly honed trio has wound up the power of their playing with maturity and a compelling determination, to deliver an object lesson in focused intensity.

There is a marked difference in their sound, which now has an additional edge to it - more percussive brightness and expressive attack. Combined with a take-no-prisoners commitment, and a refusal to stand still and rest on the laurels of their accomplishments, their resounding musical statement also made an emphatic case for the unimpaired acoustic trio - which carries through to their new album, 'Accelerando'.

Iyer's clear musical vision draws on numerous sources from jazz to Indian and modern classical, and leaves no doubt as to why he has just been awarded the prestigious Greenfield Prize for the arts and in 2010 was voted musician of the year by the American Jazz Journalists, while the trio's 'Historicity' was Downbeat's album of 2010.

Vijay Iyer and bassist Stephan Crump go back 15 years and drummer Marcus Gilmore first played with Iyer nearly 10 years ago when he was only 16. They have established a finely balanced rapport, expanding their own styles and individual playing techniques though numerous collaborations, the fruits of which they bring back to invest the trio with a bristling onstage energy.

Over two fiercely driven sets, Iyer's own compositions were mixed in with the trio's reworking of diverse material from the spikier side of the jazz spectrum - Julius Hemphill's 'Dogon A.D.' and Henry Threadgill's 'Little Pocket Sized Demons' - and Herbie Nichols's 'Wildflower' from 1956, as well as Michael Jackson's perennial 'Human Nature' - and there were visits to the melodramatic symphonic hinterland occasionally frequented by the Bad Plus.

Iyer, neatly formal in a grey suit, sketched out 'Lude' with deliberation in his opening chord sequence; Crump intently voiced the runs that he pulled out of his natty, squat-bodied road bass, and the white-shirted Gilmore threw in relaxed rhythmic fills before swivelling direction with a sharp, conspiratorial crash. The rhythm ramped up and then, without warning, they dropped out all the sound to the bare bones, as the prelude to a Headhunters-style funk flow.

This was the pattern. Nothing stood still. Nothing was sacred. The changes were made on the hoof - Iyer's tensely held postures with outstretched arm and fingers gave way to rolling chords, syncopated eastern chimes and minor key excursions. The drums and bass wove together to provide a springboard for Iyer's spiralling, floating drifts, then backed off for a lighter, more hesitant reshaping of the ground on 'Optimism'.

The sweat poured off Crump in his intent, questing delivery; Gilmore, last seen propelling Steve Coleman's group at the LJF, confidently flicked from Latin to dance step and imposed a clipped, dominant beat as the trio took apart Jackson's 'Human Nature', leading into a mesmerising trance pulse. Iyer's reflective, withdrawn piano stretch was countered by Crump's lightly lifted bass and Gilmore brought in a touch of magic as he carved out two parallel beats during a strand of exquisite trio improvisation. They bowed out on Iyer's chordal play, rallentando replacing accelerando in the final reckoning.

Iyer said how much they enjoyed playing the Vortex - perhaps one of the few places left where undivided audience attention is guaranteed - and said that they'd love to return, 'if we are invited'. They can assuredly take it that everybody who was in the house would extend that invitation - and look forward to the next visit of this truly outstanding trio.

Vijay Iyer: piano
Stephan Crump: acoustic bass
Marcus Gilmore: drums

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