Vijay Iyer’s trio with bassist Stephan Crump and Marcus Gilmore has long been one of the most exciting in contemporary music, with their two former albums, Historicity (2009) and Accelerando (2012), both on ACT, among his best recorded work to date. But Break Stuff tops them, if only by degrees, for scope and refinement.
Iyer’s music demonstrates an eclectic, invigoratingly inclusive attitude to musical influences. He came up via the more cerebral end of the urban jazz spectrum, notably working with Steve Coleman, and has also since developed a longstanding relationship with composer/saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa, in which the two New Yorkers explore music inspired, in part, by the Carnatic music of southern India.
Iyer’s two previous albums, both for ECM, were cross-genre exercises—electro-acoustic chamber music on Mutations (2014), and a Stravinsky-inspired soundtrack for Prashant Bhargava’s artful semi-documentary film Rites of Holi (2014). Both are ambitious and rewarding works, but neither are as convincingly original, nor as dynamically creative, as this new music for modern jazz trio.
The most contemporary-sounding, and therefore attention-grabbing, pieces on Break Stuff extrapolate from the rhythmic legacies of minimalism and post-techno electronica.
I first heard Iyer play “Hood” with this trio, in a performance at London’s Purcell Room, in 2013. Iyer introduced it then as a tribute to Detroit techno pioneer Robert Hood, and you can hear that influence at work. The foregoing depth of Iyer’s engagement with other musics is significant: this is very much Iyer’s engagement with the rhythms of techno, conceptually breaking down Hood’s music and folding the resultant inspirations into his own practice.
The arrangement of “Hood” heard here was more literally ‘broken down’ from an earlier sextet arrangement (which I haven’t heard), but the trio’s leanness is entirely appropriate. They aren’t doing anything you wouldn’t expect a jazz trio to do, they’re just paying more minute attention to variations on gestures and dynamics: looking closer, instead of tearing off in search of the next thing already.
“Take Flight”, on which Iyer plays an introspective solo introduction, and thereafter maintains a sense of almost courtly elegance, gradually opens up. In its full bloom, the insistent precision of Marcus Gilmore’s pinpoint percussion hints again at the influence of computer music, of looping and computational abstraction. It’s not overt, just there, in the mix. (You may know Gilmore, incidentally, from the Mark Turner Quartet, and their excellent Lathe of Heaven (2014, ECM.)
There are other trios specialising in this area, such as Gogo Penguin and Dawn of Midi, both of which have distinctive approaches. Not to dismiss them, but Iyer’s syncretistic approach to such influences is far more original: he has absorbed them into a very personal lexicon, which yet embraces fresh approaches to ‘the tradition’: dues are also payed here to Monk, Coltrane and Ellington.
Iyer plays “Blood Count”, the last of Billy Strayhorn’s works—literally, a deathbed composition—for Duke Ellington, solo, and he invests it with a fragile but numinous beauty. Thelonious Monk’s “Work”, by contrast, is vital, pulse-wise, courtesy of the rhythm section’s invention (both Crump and Gilmore get space for concise solos). Iyer really nails the combination of momentum and obliquity in Monk’s music, and puts his own stamp on it.
The pianist’s intro to John Coltrane’s “Countdown” is Monkish too, in a waspish way, and that’s fitting enough. In a free-form structure, Iyer solos at a higher tempo throughout much of the piece, while Crump and Gilmore work up a kinetic rhythm feel with bright, light touches. There’s space here, too, for a percussion workout with an African feel.
Iyer has talked, in promoting this album, of the inspiration he found in the creativity with which hip hop pioneers such as DJ Kool Herc exploited breakbeats to reveal the power of music’s underlying rhythmics, or, as he put it: “The expansive, ritualistic possibilities of the break (which) are central to African diasporic music.” In that, he also implicitly states the connection between tracks like “Hood” and four subtler, cooler tracks—they’ve mostly been noted and then passed over by reviewers—which stud this album singly, but were written for a large ensemble project.
These pieces, “Starlings”, “Chorale”, “Geese” and “Wrens”, all derive from Open City, a suite featuring texts on themes including identity and migration, which was written and performed by Iyer with novelist Teju Cole and rap artist Himanshu Suri. The most unusual of these pieces, “Geese”, is initially mournful and edgily subdued, with affecting bowed contrabass, but it develops in unexpected ways. It has the feel of a narrative.
The album’s last piece, “Wrens”, is similarly thought-provoking, lucent and enigmatic, music of deep feeling to contrast with the dynamic, energising “Countdown” and the coolly cryptic “Hood”. The scope of this album is broad, but its programming is coherent, since all of its moods are conveyed with the same knockout combination of spontaneity and analytical intelligence.
Vijay Iyer piano; Stephan Crump double bass; Marcus Gilmore drums.
Buy Break Stuff direct from ECM.