Vijay Iyer Trio at The Vortex, May 2012

When a piano trio begins a concert with a tribute to a Detroit techno artist, you know you’re in for something other than run of the mill. Vijay Iyer’s “Hood” is named for Robert Hood, a true techno original. Iyer’s stripped the tune’s arrangement down to the essentials, a 4/4 beat overlaid with instrumental lines of different lengths that lend it a discombobulating, off-kilter constancy. Thankfully, bassist Stephan Crump isn’t required to emulate a techno baseline, instead maintaining a lean, tightly knotted contrabass pulse with a hint of swing. Iyer’s contributions are kept suitably minimal.

“Hood” is too new to have featured on Accelerando, the new album Iyer is touring behind, but the next number, an unlikely cover of Heatwave’s disco classic “The Star of a Story”, is. I wouldn’t have recognized it otherwise, because again it’s been stripped down and rebuilt, on the foundation of Marcus Gilmore’s techno-age refit of the original’s idiosyncratic acoustic-phase-shift drum rhythm. On listening to the original, I wonder whether Iyer’s piano soloing extrapolated melodies from its quirky acoustic guitar soloing.

The Vortex is so packed tonight I can’t get close enough to take a decent photo. It’s the second in a two night stand, the last engagement of the trio’s current tour. Accelerando is the Indian-American pianist’s 16th album since 1995, including those with the Fieldwork trio but not his work for M-Base saxophonist Steve Coleman. Iyer could surely hold down a residency at a larger club if he wanted to, but the intimacy of the Vortex evidently suits him, and he feeds off the immediacy of the audience.

Few songs go across better than Iyer’s cover of Michael Jackson’s “Human Nature”, versions of which feature on both Accelerando and his recent Solo album. It starts too faithful to the original, too saccharine and polite for my taste, but after a full run-through the trio digs a little deeper, takes the song apart and energetically explodes it, in the way that only a tight-knit working jazz unit can.

The rash of piano trios trading in refits of Radiohead songs is head-in-hands lamentable, and Iyer, by versioning pop songs like “Human Nature” and MIA’s “Galang”, sometimes seems to reflect this trend. But there’s character and coherence in the diversity of the Iyer songbook. He ends the first set with Julius Hemphill’s “Dogon AD”, his take retaining some of the original’s toughness but now making it funkier here than it is on Historicity, giving it just a hint of the Latin bounce that once enlivened Blue Note crowd-pleasers such as Lee Morgan’s “Sidewinder”. Iyer connects Hemphill to Flying Lotus via Stevie Wonder, and winkles out the commonalities in jazz abstractions.

For me though, the set highlight is “Abundance”, an Iyer original, I know it from the Tirtha album, recorded alongside Prasanna & Nitin Mitta. Iyer’s piano reorganizes the tune’s exquisite melody, which was previously shaped by Prasanna’s electric guitar, but retains its elliptical relationship to Ornette Coleman’s “Lonely Woman”.

Toward the end of the first set, Iyer asked if anyone had any requests. “More piano”, came the response. And sure enough, the tunes in the second set mostly got a more expansive treatment, with Iyer playing more notes and the rhythm section working just that little bit harder, expelling the faint but persistent impression that Iyer’s conception is sometimes a tad academic, too self-consciously hip to be truly lovable.

This set was dominated by compositions from Accelerando, beginning with Iyer’s “Lude” and Herbie Nichols’ “Wildflower” (a great choice, for Nichols combination of earthy Dixieland and Bop with more high-minded inspirations), and ending with Duke Ellington’s “The Village of the Virgins” and a final Iyer original, “Optimism”. In between came the old ensemble workout number “Cardio”, lifted from 2005’s Reimagining, and long solo spots for Crump and Gilmore. The drummer’s sense of time is inimitably ambiguous, with insistent cymbals working a different pulse to the bass drum kick, yet locked in tight. The bassist, scatting away, dug deep and rhythmically lyrical. They are each just perfect for Iyer, who in his own most expansive solo layered incisive harmonies over occasionally explosive left-hand bombs.

As hinted, I’ve previously found it difficult to spontaneously love Iyer’s music. Yet he is, by any objective measure, one of the most creatively dynamic pianists at work in new music today. This trio, in particular, is wholly original in its approach, if not necessarily in its conception. Iyer has a knack of adapting the inherently traditional acoustic piano trio format to embrace the essence of disparate styles of more-and-less contemporary music, and has developed highly personal, instantly recognizable styles of playing, composition and arrangement. This performance might, finally, have completely won me over.

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