Vijay Iyer – Break Stuff

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Iyer has proved himself over a considerable period to be the most open and forward looking pianist recording today. A prodigious talent he is equally at home in a variety of settings whether that be the solo recording of ‘Solo’ (ACT 2012) or the more experimental strings, piano and electronic quintet that marked his 2014 ECM debut ‘Mutations’. That said it is to his trio recordings with Stephan Crump on bass and Marcus Gilmore on drums that Iyer invariably returns, punctuating the more experimental formats with jazz at a level of understanding that only comes from great players who have played together for many years.

It is also important to realise that a return to the trio format is not a stylistic retrenchment or switch to jazz auto pilot. A feature of many Iyer recordings has been the broad musical palette from which they draw – so, for example, the last Trio recording ‘Accelerando’ included compositions by Flying Lotus, Duke Ellington, Rod Temperton of Heatwave and the song “Human Nature” made famous by Michael Jackson on ‘Thriller’. In that spirit the Trio’s concert at London’s Vortex in May 2012 went one further producing an extraordinary piece of music in “Hood” – Iyer’s reflection on the music of the techno composer Robert Hood. It is rare for jazz musicians to acknowledge electronic music, let alone get it right – one suspects many would be sympathetic to the inflammatory quote printed on the sleeve of early singles by UK producers Coldcut along the lines of “I’m sorry but this just isn’t music”. Iyer is of a different more open breed, and really forty years on from Kraftwerk’s ‘Autobahn’ or, even, Tangerine Dream’s ‘Phaedra’ it is about time that electronic music was taken seriously.

“Hood” appears on ‘Break Stuff’ in a different but every bit as arresting form, bristling with movement and subtlety as the patterns clash and combine into intriguing new shapes, quite possibly the best acoustic approximation of an electronic glitch that this writer has heard to date. So what is the meaning of that ambiguous title for the collection – creative destruction through the deconstruction of musical elements, or a smart reference to the primacy of the groove, rhythm and the break in modern music? Iyer’s sleeve notes suggest a bit of both pointing out that:

“A break in music is still music: a span of time in which to act. It’s the basis for breakdowns, break-beats and break dancing. On paper a break seems like next to nothing, but in practice it can be the moment when everything comes to life”

Iyer elaborates by explaining the “subtractive process” used on many pieces that used the rhythm section breakdowns of some of his larger ensemble works as the starting point for the Trio’s explorations. At times, such as on “Taking Flight” or the title track, this can have the feel of dub reggae in the way that the rhythm provides the bare bones of the composition and the space into which the soloist responds with their contribution, lightly sketching in chords here and there, occasionally elaborating where needed.

None of this intelligence and sensitivity would matter a jot were it not for the fact that the collection sparkles with wit, invention and, well, swing. Take the way that the version of Monk’s “Work” that follows “Hood” with a similar two note rhythm line before taking off into the more traditional swing of Monk’s piece. It feels as if the Trio are telling us – that Monk and Robert Hood are compatible if your ears are open enough. Elsewhere the version of Billy Strayhorn’s “Blood Count”, channels the romance of Gershwin into a melodic interlude that effectively balances the rhythmic focus of the other pieces.

In a time when music is being compartmentalised into radio formats and curated playlists it is refreshing to hear something that is not afraid to mess with genre boundaries. Iyer’s music here may be rooted in and derived from a well thought out response to the break, but that awareness and acknowledgement of rhythm and groove means that it can also invoke a visceral response in the listener. Morrissey may once have reflected on ‘does the body rule the mind, or does the mind rule the body’, here Iyer seems to have it both ways. It is an extremely unusual combination that is everything you would hope for from forward looking modern jazz. Highly recommended.

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