The Vijay Iyer trio has been on the continent less than 24 hours. This is the first date of a month-long European tour. They seem a little stiff at first, but gradually relax into their music and allow it to breathe. There’s a long performance ahead, at least 100 minutes until the main set ends, and by then they’ve shed important degrees of formal reserve.
Since my last concert review of this trio, from May 2012, few of the basics have changed. The trio’s setlist has been bought more up-to-date perhaps, with fewer compositions predating Accelerando, the latest album. But there are changes in essentials. The rapport between Iyer, bassist Stephan Crump and drummer Marcus Gilmore has deepened, and their interactions become more refined. Their sound is more than ever inimitable.
That’s noticeable in Gilmore’s rhythm extrapolations, which are as idiosyncratic, and as essential for this music, as Denardo Coleman’s are for the later works of Ornette Coleman. Crump, on bass, marries clipped, incisive attack to a rich, resonant tonality. They leave Iyer so much space for melodic development that he can be sparing, yet powerful. Their interactions are contrapuntal, sometimes even seeming a little disjointed, their time signatures changeable, but their collective rhythm follows a perceptible pulse.
The marriage of pulse and off-kilter precision to intricate staccato patterns gives this music a formal semblance to certain strands of electronic dance music. This is exemplified by Iyer’s “Hood”, a tribute to Robert Hood, a pioneer of minimal techno, and a seemingly significant milestone in the development of Iyer’s music.
As with other cerebral genre variants, the trio’s music has been described as “math” jazz. And yes, it doesn’t seem too fanciful to suggest that it is evolving a language for its own equational music, a complex of compositional and interpretive variables: to repurpose a classic M-Base album title, their own cypher syntax.
“Hood” is dropped in the midst of a rigorous opening medley, which also includes Iyer’s “Bode” and “Lude”, as well as Henry Threadgill’s wonderfully zestful composition, “Little Pocket Size Demons”. “Accelerando” is the only number that makes use of a jarring drum machine sound and other subtler electronic treatments; it’s one area where Iyer seems less than fully confident, as the subsequent relaxation into a rework of Rod Temperton’s Heatwave classic “The Star of a Story” seems to acknowledge.
The highlight of the concert was undoubtedly “Abundance”, with it’s slippery melodic allusion to Ornette’s “Lonely Woman” and exploded Bebop exposition (Iyer recorded the tune with his Tirtha trio in 2008, for the 2011 album of that name).
The trio then took “Human Nature” apart, essaying the cloying melody as faithfully as either Michael Jackson or Miles Davis, but then breaking it down and rearranging it in developmental layers that embraced both individual solos and decked climaxes. There was more to come, but this was where the trio eased back and opened out, loosing some of their former stringency and relieving the audience of much pent-up nervous tension. I think they next played something by Horace Silver, or was it Duke Ellington? I think Flying Lotus’ “MmmHmm” was somewhere in the mix too. That’s how this trio roll.
Earlier, in his initial remarks, Iyer said he was glad to be back amid the “intersections” of an urban populous, and that seems to me to be a telling aside. His art is a curious mix of respect for Jazz tradition and the always forward-looking, nostalgia-free creativity central to so much of contemporary urban music. But his intuitive feel for polymetric groove music, no doubt fostered through collaborations with Steve Coleman, an acknowledged mentor—that, and a studied multiculturalism—lift this music out of the moment and into a projected future. For all its accomplishment it still seems, thrillingly, to be more a blueprint than a finished product.