Vijay Iyer – Historicity (Jazz CD, 2009) Review

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Because of – or perhaps in spite of – the fact that my musical tastes fall well outside of the mainstream, I have always been suspicious of something that has become the ‘latest critical darling’, even when it is from an artist I love. In recent years I remember buying ‘River: The Joni Letters’ on release because of the artist making the recording (Herbie Hancock), his guests (Wayne Shorter, Michael Brecker, Roy Hargrove and vocalists Norah Jones, Tina Turner), and of course the subject of the tribute (Joni Mitchell). I played it a few times, since nothing really ‘stuck’ the first time, but quickly deleted the content off my iPod as I found it indulgent and inferior to the originals in every way. But soon enough the tribute album was a top seller and was nominated for and eventually won big-time at the Grammy Awards. None of the reasons that the record was celebrated had much to do with actually being a great collection of music. So when the newest recording by the talented but relatively unknown pianist Vijay Iyer was being called ‘jazz record of the year’ – even before release – I was quite skeptical to say the least.

Vijay Iyer isn’t exactly new on the scene, as the 38 year old child of Indian parents has been recording for nearly 15 years. He has had success with Steve Coleman’s Five Elements and other ensembles as well as with his own recordings, which have featured a variety of configurations and also different degrees of technology infused with his interesting blend of jazz and southeast Asian influences. For Historicity he has a basic piano trio with Stephen Crump on bass and Marcus Gilmore on drums, but that doesn’t make this music ordinary or derivative by any stretch of the imagination.

2009 has been an interesting year for piano trios, even more for me as I have been rediscovering some classic piano trio works that had long sat locked on LP’s in my closet. While there have certainly been mainstream releases like Keith Jarret’s latest group of expertly executed standards, I have been more in tune with the newer directions in trio interplay exemplified by Avery Sharpe’s new release “Autumn Moonlight”. This has also been fed by the re-release of some classic works by folks like Richie Beirach and Paul Bley from the ECM library. I recall reading a comment recently by Avery Sharpe about how after years playing with McCoy Tyner’s trio that the space afforded by that group and the level of interplay and importance of each member made it so he HAD to form his own trio because he couldn’t hear music in any other way.

Likewise Iyer constructs a trio where every not and rhythmic statement by each member lends considerable weight to every moment of music presented. But the structure and presentation are very different: whereas Sharpe’s group will easily slide into the background to allow for conversations and has been pleasantly enjoyed by my family on a Sunday morning, Historicity simply will not be ignored. My family enjoys it, but it just isn’t the sort of music that allows for easy background listening during casual conversation. The music here is dense and layered and punctuated both rhythmically and harmonically with surprises at every turn.

Here are the songs:

Historicity – I am not married to the idea that a great song needs to actually have a melody, so I had no issue with the very dense harmonic structure that opens this song after a deceptively simple start. There is just so much going on that for the first several listenings I just let it all wash over me. It is funny that the first time I listened was in my car, and when I got to the clear melodic figures near the end I went back and tried to see if there was a ‘restatement of melody’ going on … but what was going on was an interesting evolution of themes taht had been hinted at but never stated throughout the song. This Iyer original won’t leave you humming anything in particular, but neither will it leave your brain any time soon.

Somewhere – this ‘standard’ gets the ‘deconstruction’ treatment. It starts with Crump playing an ascending chromatic figure that Gilmore immediately comes in and destroys, taking things in another direction. Iyer then enters playing the melody, but the rhythmic structure pulls the phrasing totally out of the context of the original composition, and it also plays against the interesting groove undercurrent. Soon Iyer is playing a descending chromatic figure against Crump’s walking groove and counter to Gilmore, yet it all works and is extremely engaging.

Galang – I had never heard of it, but apparently this was originally a pop song by British singer M.I.A. You wouldn’t know it, as it really sounds like a rhythmically heavy but harmonically ‘out there’ song that fits very well with everything else – yet after checking out the original on <a YouTube ( I was amazed at how the trio was able to be fiercely free harmonically and innovative rhythmically yet faithful to the original.

Helix – another Iyer original, and this is a thing of beauty. A stunning melody sets up statements from the whole trio – even as Iyer is playing the melody against a seemingly standard trio setting, Crump is interjecting melodic counterpoint and Gilmore is accentuating certain phrases as if to suggest alternative meanings and moods. Once again, half way through the song everything begins to evolve and change, yet the melodic and harmonic thread remains while the three players circle each other in a manner befitting the title. There are numerous melodic quotes and references that gave me a smile here. Then, just as things are climaxing and you expect them to settle back into the original groove, the song ends. Brilliant.

Smoke Stack – a cover song that serves as a tribute to the talented but largely forgotten 60’s pianist and composer Andrew Hill. I had to pull out my old LP recording to check the original out again … and this is much better. The Hill song is fairly standard piano group offering, but Hill also has a tendency to just play stuff in a meandering and seemingly pointless style. Vijay Iyer, on the other hand, seems very aware of note choice and placement. This feels much more in the head-solo-head tradition than other songs on this recording, but the group makes sure it never settles into anything ordinary or predictable. In my eyes this is in every way superior to the original – I particularly love how the rhythm flows naturally and freely between the players while maintaining a solid base.

Big Brother – Stevie Wonder’s song from his classic Talking Book recording is absolutely beautiful until you listen to the words – they speak of the politicians and political structures that exploit the weak and impoverished (especially minorities) for votes, while simultaneously destroying their leaders to keep them in positions of need. It is touching, poignant, sad, and very rooted in the post-60’s disillusionment. But think about that – without the lyric the original would be much happier and less critical … so how does Iyer get across those same emotions in an instrumental performance? The use an intro with moody piano and bowed bass full of harmonic overtones to set things off, and then enter into the beautiful song proper. But the rhythm section never lets things settle too much – especially Crump who seems to constantly imply a discordant undertone with his playing. Anyone needing a reminder of Stevie Wonder’s brilliance need only listen to how well the structure of this song translates into densely structured jazz.

Dogon A.D. – Who ever heard of a bowed bass as a strong rhythmic instrument in jazz? Me neither – but it really works! This Julius Hemphill composition gets going right away and just never quite. Hemphill is an amazing figure in jazz as the founder of the World Saxophone Quartet, which brought funk, jazz, soul, and more into a four-sax context that was full of swing, humor and open improvisation. This song is from an early recording that featured trumpet, cello, drums and Hemphill’s sax, and is one of the classic recordings of the 1970’s avant-garde period. Sadly this was never released on CD, so unless you were fortunate (like me) to have grabbed an LP ages ago you can’t hear the classic original. Again Iyer and the trio maintain a faithfulness that shows respect while also making the song their own throughout. The original was thin due to the lack of a piano or bass, but the new version features a solid foundation with the bowed bass and Iyer’s deft left hand work providing a solid foundation throughout.

Mystic Brew – this cover of a Ronnie Foster original from the early 70’s shows just how well Iyer can channel his influences into an entirely original direction. I had heard of Foster but never owned any of his stuff, and a quick trip to iTunes to check out the original tells me that won’t change anytime soon. I like the organ, love 70’s funk, but the original was too light and thin to leave much of an impression. And this is a clear case of taking someone else’s song and recreating it in a way that takes it into a new direction. The simple melody and harmonic structure are still there, with the simple turn-around bottom end and lilting pad chords producing something so simple and familiar that even my kids said ‘have I heard this before’. Yet after that introduction the group again moves into a harmonic helix, chasing each other around while still staying inside the original structure. Things slow down introspectively and then get fast and heavy and feel almost like a minimalist interpretation of jazz ala Nik Barscht’s Ronin, layering simple figures into a complex and dense arrangement where the rhythms and structures dance all around before finally starting to converge, only to fragment and deconstruct the original before coming back together in a smooth conclusion that makes you feel like you’ve been on a journey of discovery.

Trident: 2010 – I have heard folks compare this melody to the work of Keith Jarrett, and to an extent I agree. Yet it is at once entirely different. Within two minutes we have left familiar ground are are enjoying an extended Crump foray during which Iyer and Gilmore continue to work on expanding the initial structures – and then Crump doesn’t stop his explorations when Iyer takes off on his own melodic statements. Yet rather than sounding chaotic it carries with it the full tradition of improvised interplay going back to dixieland and working all the way through the free jazz tradition to end up in a place of group improvisation that is at once open and accessible.

Segment for Sentiment #2 – the title tells the tale here. This is a slow and ponderously sentimental reflection by all of the band-mates which nicely closes things out. There are all of the trademark interchanges and easy switching of foreground and background without ever stopping the interjection of melodic ideas, yet the tone is the most introspective of all the music presented here. This ‘last song feel’ is something that used to feel obvious on recordings, but in the modern iPod / MP3 / shuffle world, we seldom put on a CD and listen from start to finish in the original order. I have done just that more times with this recording than any other in recent memory, so I really appreciate the feeling of a slow and reflective conclusion to the recording.

By now, this recording is getting loads of mind-share in jazz circles, but I have to give a special thanks to Jason Crane of The Jazz Session for alerting me of the pending release – I would have found it eventually, but Jason had an interview with Vijay Iyer back in September which let me note it on my calendar.

Finally, I have to admit that I absolutely love Vijay Iyer’s Historicity. The hype is well deserved – the compositions, arrangements, restructuring of cover songs and the overall playing are brilliant. This is a recording that requires and rewards repeated listenings – there is simply no way to get everything going on after just a few listens. But the songs are worth the time spent: there is such a density of ideas that even a few weeks later I’m still discovering something new to love each time I listen. That doesn’t mean these are laborious works that need intense study – this is joyful music that is fun, playful, introspective, retrospective, and just enjoyable. Despite looking backwards for many of the songs, my fears of yet another stodgy and dreadful ‘great American songbook’ recording were dispelled in the first few notes. So is it the jazz record of the year? Fortunately that is a tough choice – there has been a ton of great stuff released this year. But in my opinion as of today, Vijay Iyer’s Historicity is the thing I’ll look back upon when I ask “what made jazz music great and relevant in 2009”.

Where to Buy: MP3 Store

Price: $8.90 (CD available for $13.99)

What I Like:
– Great original compositions
– Dense harmonic structure rewards repeat listenings
– Fantastic interplay between the trio

What Needs Improvement:
– A couple of songs work despite coming from fairly average original versions

Here is the studio recording video for Galang (remember that jazz recordings are usually done live just like this):

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About the Author

Michael Anderson
I have loved technology for as long as I can remember - and have been a computer gamer since the PDP-10! Mobile Technology has played a major role in my life - I have used an electronic companion since the HP95LX more than 20 years ago, and have been a 'Laptop First' person since my Compaq LTE Lite 3/20 and Powerbook 170 back in 1991! As an avid gamer and gadget-junkie I was constantly asked for my opinions on new technology, which led to writing small blurbs ... and eventually becoming a reviewer many years ago. My family is my biggest priority in life, and they alternate between loving and tolerating my gaming and gadget hobbies ... but ultimately benefits from the addition of technology to our lives!

1 Comment on "Vijay Iyer – Historicity (Jazz CD, 2009) Review"

  1. @vijayiyer Can't wait for Solo to record! Loved Historicity (my review – and know I'll love this!

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