Jazz CD Reviews

Vijay Iyer Trio – Accelerando – Act

Pianist Vijay Iyer confirms his own adage: music is action.

Published on April 1, 2012

Vijay Iyer Trio – Accelerando – Act 9542-2, 59:49 ****:

(Vijay Iyer – piano, producer; Stephan Crump – bass; Marcus Gilmore – drums)

Since his 1995 debut, Memorophilia, pianist Vijay Iyer has amassed critical approval, increased his audience support and reaped national and international honors. His previous trio record, Historicity (2009), was voted the top jazz album of the year by several publications and was nominated for a Grammy in 2010. A solo piano venture was also favorably received. Iyer continues his many-hued vision of jazz with his latest trio outing, Accelerando, which has a similar approach to Historicity. Like its predecessor, Accelerando is a visceral collection of jazz covers (Henry Threadgill, Duke Ellington, others), pop/dance tunes (Michael Jackson, disco kings Heatwave and underground experimental techno artist Flying Lotus) and Iyer’s absorbing originals. Iyer is again paired with bassist Stephan Crump (who began performing with Iyer in 1997) and drummer Marcus Gilmore (grandson of famed drummer Roy Haynes), who started playing with Iyer in 2003.

Iyer set the bar high with Historicity but goes beyond his own prominent par with his new hour-long program. The guiding theme, the overall propelling principle, is the experience of rhythm. Iyer explains, “Dance is just a bodily way of listening to music, it’s a universal response. Jazz has always had some sort of dance impulse at its core.” Iyer says Accelerando is concerned with the physical reality of music. He illuminates his idea that “music is action” during an eight-minute promotional video.

Like many jazz musicians born in the latter half of the 20th century, Iyer’s influences are wide and all encompassing. His musical world is the world: he is no stranger to rock, pop, African and Asian musical inspirations, anything and everything which has a groove or a pulse. An example is the restless title track, with an unpredictably fluctuating tempo. It was initially written as part of a dance project for choreographer Karole Armitage. The piece utilizes vivid repetition and increasingly intricate harmonics to create a propulsive atmosphere. There is also a rhythmic charge to “Optimism,” which commences with an expectant introduction but then the trio begins a buildup, changing from something unflustered to an instinctual quality, with crescendos where the three musicians push each other from sprints to quietly hushed moments (there is a memorably ethereal bass solo close to the middle mark) and back to a hurtling cadence. Interwoven movement and percussive energy also drives through aptly titled “Actions Speak,” where the trio produces a jagged interpolation with a slightly gritty undercurrent, fueled by Iyer’s explorative keyboards.

Iyer strikingly interpreted Michael Jackson’s “Human Nature” on his solo piano release and here he lengthens the top-ten number into a nearly ten-minute, extended trio excursion. Iyer preserves the appealing melody but the trio sculpts rich rhythmic complexity and tonal textures and expands the syncopation. At times the beat is twice as fast as the familiar radio mainstay, multiplied on the drums while the bass goads the groove. Iyer also tackles the disco-era cut, “The Star of a Story,” an obscure smooth-funk track by sleek dance group Heatwave. While the original accentuates a light groove, slick production and glossy vocals, Iyer converts the track into an enticing marvel of ascending, inventively-twisted beats highlighted by Gilmore’s machine-like cymbals and much looser application of snare and kick drum. Iyer is equally adroit as he crafts subtle harmonics virtually hidden in the Heatwave version. Iyer comments that such unusual choices are not obvious material for a jazz piano trio, “but it’s good to reach beyond to different musical approaches. It leads to discovery.” Nowhere is that more apparent than the threesome’s transformation of spacy, electronics-fed “Mmmhmm,” by Flying Lotus and singing bassist Thundercat. Crump uses bowed bass lines to execute, restate and tease the melody, while Iyer manipulates sparse chords to sometimes dissonant and at other times lyrical effect. Gilmore accelerates the groove, gradually surging the tempo and employing a staggered rhythmic weight which generates a deliberate sound akin to an imperfect, digital drum loop. The result is dense, very modern post-bop.

Iyer also re-envisions Threadgill’s “Little Pocket-Sized Demons.” Threadgill’s avant-garde/fusion arrangement included tubas, guitars and French horn layered into an otherworldly performance. Iyer admits “it took a leap of imagination” to redo the polyphonic and surreal tune for piano, bass and drums. Threadgill came to a rehearsal and gave Iyer some tips, with a stunning outcome. Arco bass solidifies the relatively lean layout, while Gilmore swells the beat with percussive smears to evoke the tubas. The trio closes out the album with a conventional jazz reading of the lightly soulful “The Village of the Virgins,” from Ellington’s 1970 ballet score for Alvin Ailey’s choreographic theater production The River. The cut is an eloquent ending to an intelligently head-and-body-moving album.

TrackList:

Bode; Optimism; The Star of a Story; Human Nature [trio extension]; Wildflower; Mmmhmm; Little Pocket Size Demons; Lude; Accelerando; Actions Speak; The Village of the Virgins.

—Doug Simpson




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