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October 2009

Vijay Iyer Trio
Historicity
ACT Music + Vision

Here pianist Vijay Iyer, along with bassist Stephan Crump and drummer Marcus Gilmore, honors what Iyer’s notes call “pre-existing works” by artists including Stevie Wonder, Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim, M.I.A., Julius Hemphill and Andrew Hill. Iyer also includes two pieces based on his own previously recorded work (“Trident: 2010” and “Segment for Sentiment #2”), as if to challenge himself to re-imagine his own ideas with the same relentless rigor that he applies to the work of others. (A pair of newly minted Iyer originals, “Historicity” and “Helix,” round out the set.)

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The inclusion of the Hill composition (“Smoke Stack”) is especially appropriate, because Hill’s influence on Iyer’s playing is profound. Like Hill, Iyer often uses his two hands as dual rhythm instruments, laying down fiercely splayed chords and single-note sparks in patterns that nudge, swirl, dance and scamper against and between each other, creating daunting melodic and rhythmic contours along the way.

Iyer’s reading of the Bernstein/Sondheim classic “Somewhere” discards the aching pathos of the original in favor of a teeming, dark-hued exercise in tonal and melodic coloration. In his hands, M.I.A.’s “Galang” is shot through with piercing stabs and stuttering, wide-finger chordal patterns that intensify the mood of dissociation and dread. Iyer’s trio recasts Stevie Wonder’s “Big Brother” as a complex three-way interplay among instruments that function simultaneously as rhythmic and melodic voices. Ronnie Foster’s “Mystic Brew” is set to a stately martial cadence that Iyer fractures and recasts with his alternately thrusting, flowing and roiling lines.

Iyer’s own works, meanwhile, are rife with the timbral, harmonic, rhythmic and melodic complexities that have become his trademark. His dual percussive/melodic keyboard voices create patterns so dense that sometimes one fears he’ll get lost in them. In the end, however, those patterns reveal themselves to be, not cul-de-sacs or sonic scribbles, but runelike markers that reveal the possibility of new forms and new beauty.

Originally published in October 2009
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