This album arrives with high expectations. Vijay Iyer is among the most decorated jazz musicians of his generation. He wins jazz polls, professorships, prizes and MacArthur Fellowships. Mutations is his debut on ECM, a label known for bringing forth new levels of creativity from its artists.
But Mutations is a major disappointment. The problem is Iyer’s writing for strings. There is a 10-part suite for string quartet, piano and electronics. The suite is stunningly devoid of the aesthetic and emotional content that makes most people listen to music. Qualities such as lyric discovery, melodic fulfillment and rhythmic engagement are absent.
In a liner note, Iyer explains his concept: “A mutation process drives each of the suite’s 10 episodes. In some sections, minute variations or fluctuations in a recurring figure ultimately elicit a structural transformation…” If this sounds like fun to you, you are probably part of a certain audience of experienced listeners (including many jazz critics) who are fascinated by the unfamiliarity of Iyer’s assumptions, and by how he postulates complex problems and solves them in unpredictable ways.
But musical erudition is not the same as beauty. On most pieces the strings trace geometric patterns of stark austerity. Implicit, mildly caustic discords grate on the nerves. Some movements are all but unlistenable. “II: Rise” is a whine held for almost three minutes, into which individual stringed instruments intrude with fidgets and quivers. On “IX: Descent,” an obsessive repetitive violin sawing, you wait in vain for the “minute variations” that will “elicit a structural transformation.”
There are also four piano tracks. The last movement of the suite (“X: Time”) and three standalone pieces are quiet, slow searches. They are all Iyer compositions, but they sound like spontaneous meditations. They create rapt, cloistral atmospheres, and provide the best moments in the sincere but failed experiment that is Mutations.