REVIEW: Vijay Iyer Sextet at the Jazz Cafe

Vijay Iyer at Unterfahrt in Munich in 2016
Photo credit: Ralf Dombrowski

REVIEW: Vijay Iyer Sextet
(Jazz Cafe. 8 July 2018. Review by AJ Dehany)

New York-based pianist Vijay Iyer was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship in 2013, partly in recognition of his large scale projects exploring American life since 9/11. Last year the so-called ‘Genius Grant’ was also awarded to Tyshawn Sorey, who played drums on Vijay Iyer Sextet’s album Far From Over. The brilliance of that 2017 album doesn’t just come from having two MacArthur Fellows on it. Sorey has left the touring group but under Iyer’s distinctive yet generous leadership the sextet keeps pushing into layered and varied contemporary terrain ranging from fierce free-influenced hard bop to oneiric abstract electronic sanctuaries.

Their sense of harmonic and rhythmic risk-taking is so assured, they seemed not to break into a sweat during a monster 100-minute set at London’s Jazz Cafe, delivered in three bouts of one continuous hour, a half hour, and a ten-minute encore. Each episode brought a renewed urgency, driven home by the boom of the rock gig PA system, the drums giving you an earful from the front right of the stage, and the crunchy sound of the Jazz Cafe’s Yamaha piano which sharpened even further the spiky quality of Vijay Iyer’s characteristic fracturings of chordal voicings.

It’s interesting to consider whether he had been affected by Robert Mitchell’s prior 35-minute solo piano improvisation (which was a masterclass in compositional development through improvisation and deserves its own separate piece of writing devoted to it). In Iyer’s surprisingly restrained solo moments there may have been an enhanced flavour of the British pianist’s darkly neoclassical jazz stylings.

The frontline trio of horns has a distinctive character situated around a mid-high register to leave ample space for Iyer’s harmonic inventions in the right hand and Stephan Crump’s expressive physicality on the double bass. Steve Lehman’s chirring alto sax almost sounds like a plastic horn as he spits flurries of notes that break against the rhythms, forcing everyone to respond creatively. Young drummer and writer Jeremy Dutton has taken over from Tyshawn Sorey and brings his own restless energy and intelligence to bear on the group’s with especially intricate detail and creativity on snare, hi-hat and kick. Rhythms are displaced but not dislocating. Mark Shim’s snappy tenor is well suited to the earthquake jazz later in the set and takes his best solo with a tincture of mid-Trane. Graham Haynes has an impressive diversity and versatility with powerful blowing of the cornet and flugelhorn and unsettlingly languorous rubato in conjunction with electronic effects.

Iyer’s themes are decorated with ideas and licks familiar from jazz history but integrated and reordered with a fresher contemporary sense, angular and fractured but somehow unified and satisfying. On several tunes, Iyer’s densely claustrophobic vamps wring the intensity, winding and winding it up. During the unfolding drama of the unbroken sequence of tracks reordered from the most recent album, the sextet dialed up the intensity to a plateau before releasing us, whether into the dreamy textures of the Rhodes on End of the Tunnel, or suddenly breaking into stomping altered funk of Down To The Wire.

"Keep listening. Keep resisting"
Vijay Iyer at the Jazz Cafe
Phone snap by AJ Dehany

The final phase of intensification during album closer and encore Threnody refigured an altered almost balladic sense with a stern solemnity straining through to a redemptive outlook. During the final solos, the players each issued strong statements, individually expressive but strongly drilled, with a climactic group improvisation ascending stepwise with mounting intensity to a bruising conclusion. “Well, these are troubled times,” said Vijay Iyer, making explicit the New Yorker’s committed sense of engagement with contemporary life and music. “I’m glad we could share this with you. Keep listening. Keep resisting.”

AJ Dehany is based in London and writes independently about music, art and stuff. ajdehany.co.uk

Vijay Iyer Sextet 

Vijay Iyer – piano
Mark Shim – tenor saxophone
Steve Lehman – alto saxophone
Graham Haynes – cornet, flugelhorn, electronics
Stephan Crump – double bass
Jeremy Dutton – drums LINK: Interview with Vijay Iyer from 2013

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