I can hardly believe it has been nearly a year since I reviewed Vijay Iyer’s Historicity. I marked that recording high on my list of ‘best music of 2009’, so I was hotly anticipating his next release. I wasn’t alone in my praise – at his official site, the description calls it “one of the most acclaimed albums of the decade, Vijay Iyer’s debut on ACT Music is a trio album combining his searing originals with a surprising batch of covers.” As a result, the new release ‘Solo’ has gained plenty of attention already – but is it worth buying? Read on and find out!
By now, there can be no doubt that pianist-composer Iyer stands among the most daringly original jazz artists of the under-40 generation,” writes Howard Reich in the Chicago Tribune. The American-born son of Indian immigrants, VIJAY IYER (pronounced “VID-jay EYE-yer”) was described by The Village Voice as “the most commanding pianist and composer to emerge in recent years,” by The New Yorker as one of “today’s most important pianists… extravagantly gifted,” and by the L.A. Weekly as “a boundless and deeply important young star.” After the phenomenal success of The Vijay Iyer Trio’s 2009 release “Historicity” – the `800-pound gorilla on year-end best-of lists’ (L.A. Times), Iyer returns with Solo.
What makes a great solo piano recording? No – that wasn’t rhetorical, I am really wondering if there is some objective criteria out there. Because in all of the early looks at this recording I have read some comment or other about what place this sort of recording holds in terms of reflecting or establishing a pianists position and therefore what it says about Vijay Iyer. For me all of that is honestly rather silly, I was much more interested in the video short he released talking about the process of making the recording than trying to assign some abstract value.
But in terms of what makes for a great solo piano recording: while the answer is there is no objective criteria, just as I love solo guitar recordings from Pat Metheny’s One Quiet Night to Derek Bailey’s Ballads and beyond, I am always looking for an artist to bring something unique and interesting to a solo performance. I am looking to learn something that is unique to who the artist is and what they are about. Of course that is intentionally vague, because that ‘something interesting’ can be something like Keith Jarrett’s ‘Koln Concert’, Bill Evan’s dual-tracked ‘Conversations With Myself’, Thelonious Monk’s ‘Solo’, Paul Bley’s ‘Open, To Love’ or any of an array of great solo work by Art Tatum, Bud Powell, Chick Corea, Richie Beirach, and so many others.
So before answering whether Vijay Iyer’s new Solo has ‘something interesting’, let’s take a look at all of the songs one at a time:
Human Nature – while I certainly knew much of Michael Jackson’s Thriller, the first time I heard this song was on Miles Davis 1985 recording You’re Under Arrest, thinking it was a beautiful song. Since then I have heard it many times by Miles, Jackson and others, and still feel it is a beautiful song.
Iyer’s reading on Human Nature really exemplifies what I love about his approach and about this record. Whenever he plays a song he lays out a nice fragment or theme that is telling of the harmonic structure but not necessarily directly related to the song. After about thirty seconds the song starts taking form, and by the one and a half-minute there is a fairly straight take on the verse. When my family listened to it my wife said it was familiar but by two minutes she knew what song it was. Gorgeous rendition and one of my faves.
Epistrophy – Monk was an iconic player and composer, and by that I mean as soon as you hear a phrase from a composition you can immediately identify the entirety and know the origin. That is exactly what happens here – you get about thirty seconds of build-up followed by a short fragment that announces the song has arrived!
As with Human Nature, I love how that introduction informs the overall structure without revealing the song, but upon repeating the song it feels like it flows naturally in a circular patter from start to finish and back again. I’m not sure if it was intentional, but it is a great construct regardless. Iyer is obviously a student of Monk in terms of his dense and obtuse style, and that fits really well with Epistrophy – many good instrumentalists struggle with Monk, but Iyer is right at home.
Darn That Dream – Although this was a popular song released in 1939 with many versions recorded through the years, it was the one by the Miles Davis Nonet from the Birth of the Cool recordings that has always been my favorite. As such my listening is colored by that specific arrangement.
This is perhaps the most straight-forward song on the recording, although it starts with a very modern fragment it quickly settles into focusing on the beautiful melody and harmony and even uses a stride piano style at times that wouldn’t have been out of place in the 1950’s. It is almost a sentimental read throughout, with a very serious improvisation that stays close to the original harmony and never strays to far. It is the least Iyer-like song on the recording, but a beautiful piece of music. I also love how it sort of stops rather than ending, with a few extra notes extending and just hanging there.
Black & Tan Fantasy – This is a classic Duke Ellington song from 1927, and was an early attempt by Ellington at a ‘larger form’ piece – one that was an amazing success and foreshadows Ellington as one of the great composers of modern music. What Iyer does here is amazing: capture the elegance of the original without falling into the trap of simply reproducing it. He plays in a style that seems to transcend the ages, bridging 1927 to 2010 with ease.
Prelude: Heartpiece – The first of four original songs, and the shortest song on the album by quite a bit. After a quiet and brooding beginning, the song is dense and playful as I would expect, sounding reminiscent to something by Cecil Taylor (whose wonderful Unit Structures has been getting loads of play recently). Then, as quickly as it has begun to take shape and suggest a direction, it is gone – and I am left wanting more. Which was granted, since the four middle songs seem to form a sort of suite.
Autoscopy – ‘Autoscopy’, really? C’mon, couldn’t you name the song something normal like Epistrophy or Heebie Jeebies? Actually that was from a tweet he did noting that a reviewer had taken him to task for the song title while not even hesitating with Monk’s Epistrophy. In terms of structure this starts as much more of a Taylor-esque piece with sprawling fragments all over the place and an overall lack of an apparent theme.
About midway through, something happens – a melody and harmonic structure forms. The earlier material is still there, but now transformed into cohesive elements. I was reminded of minimalist composers to an extent and also of Nik Barscht’s Holon recordings which have a similar element of pattern-based rhythmic and harmonic progression.
Patterns – Truth in naming, Patterns builds slowly throughout its eight and a half minute length, featuring alternating segments that feel like the Steven Reich / Nik Barscht work from Autoscopy, and others sounding more like Chick Corea or Keith Jarrett. Yet all of it works together nicely and moves through an interesting progression of harmony and melody. Near the conclusion it becomes quiet and introspective, only to return to the earlier melodic fragments just before closing.
Desiring – To me this is a classic Iyer composition similar to what I loved in Historicity – he is pre-informed on the outcome and therefore doesn’t hold back any drama from the listener from the start. As a result, from the opening bars the melody and improvisation are intertwined, and only as he opens up can you begin to differentiate which is which. It is a melody that is bright and somber in alternating turns, but introspective and thoughtful throughout.
Games – I have been a fan of Steve Coleman for years, as has Iyer, having played with him for a time. Coleman is a fan of direct melody, and a great composer of longer form themes. Iyer keeps the melody front and center throughout the song, varying his underpinning harmonies, but keeps it interesting and flowing the whole way through. It is fun and funky, and I am sure Coleman thinks it is a pretty cool version.
Fleurette Africaine – Another Ellington song, and this one from the other end of the maestro’s career. Recorded with Max Roach and Charles Mingus in 1962, this is from the excellent but underappreciated Monkey Jungle album that seems to have faded into obscurity. It has all the hallmarks of a great Ellington piece, wonderful melody, deep and engaging harmony, and a soulful nature that belies the complexity of what is underneath.
Vijay Iyer once again remains faithful to the classic Ellington version, trading a drone pedal for Mingus fast-plucked bottom line, and maintaining the intriguing lines Ellington wove all around the melody. While the original song was just under four minutes, Iyer works and reworks the melody and improvises for nearly eight minutes. Yet he never loses sight of the original thread, and makes it all worthwhile.
One For Blount – The album closes with an original dedicated to Sun Ra, who was born Herman Blount and went by the name Sonny Blount for many years before changing to Sun Ra. This short piece is both funky and bluesy, with a great joyous and fun feel. People forget that beyond the flowing robes and celestial origins and so on that Sun Ra had a wonderful sense of adventure, funk, blues and humor in his music. With this final song Iyer delivers a final reminder of how he can be reflective and forward looking, adventurous and respectful, and always innovative and interesting. And once again, even after an hour of great music I am left wanting more.
When reviewing Historicity I noted that some of the cover songs chosen didn’t live up to the originals. For Solo, Iyer has done a great job balancing his own compositions and some great selections of other compositions. If anything, to an extent some of the originals are overwhelmed by the originals. I had tweeted about this:
This morning when my younger son said ‘WAIT, restart that song’ confirmed just how awesome @vijayiyer new ‘Solo’ is! http://bit.ly/8ZyQVR
The song was Human Nature. It is the clear favorite of my family. For myself, I like that song and Fleurette Africaine for covers, and absolutely adore the Prelude: Heartpiece / Autoscopy / Patterns mini-suite.
The overall quality of the album is excellent, with Iyer showing technical mastery of a variety of styles, thoughtful reworking on other people’s compositions and intriguing improvisation woven throughout. I really love the cyclical form he often uses, how the beginning of songs shows harmonic explorations outside of the main song themes that are informed by the way he plays throughout the rest of the song.
If I had to make a criticism, it would be that Iyer never steps very far outside of his wheelhouse. He is in great form throughout, respectfully taking some of his great influences and the masters of the form – but sometimes his technique allows him to meld himself too much to the styles of his forebears. He already possesses a unique voice, and I wish he had stepped above his past and treated everything as his own a little more forcefully, rather than weaving his style in with that of the masters.
But that is a minor criticism for such a wonderful recording, and one that does nothing to diminish my enjoyment of this music. I have already been asked the question so I might as well pose it here: do I like this as much as Historicity? No, I cannot say that I think Solo reaches the heights of last year’s work. But then again in my eyes Historicity stands as a masterful achievement for Iyer at this point in his career, and Solo is a fantastic follow up. I am certain there will be another Solo recording in years to come, as well as efforts with bands of varying sizes – and I look forward to hearing Vijay Iyer’s unique voice grow through the years and through those efforts.
Review: Vijay Iyer – Solo
Where to Buy: Amazon.com MP3 Store
Price: $7.99(CD available for $13.99)
What I Like:
– Excellent choice of cover songs
– Great original compositions
– Dense harmonic structure rewards repeat listenings
What Needs Improvement:
– Never steps far enough outside his comfort zone to risk failure – or achieve true greatness.
Here is the short promotional video he made about the recording: