Miguel Zenón/Vijay Iyer @ Berklee, 12/9/11
A double-bill features two of today's best
The Celebrity Series of Boston on December 9 brought Miguel Zenón and Vijay Iyer and their bands to Berklee Performance Center for separate sets featuring two of the jazz world’s most celebrated and talented youngish stars.
Zenón and his longtime quartet went first and stuck to a program drawn entirely from his album Alma Adentro: The Puerto Rican Songbook, minus the 10-piece backing horn ensemble on the CD. (Coincidentally, Alma Adentro was that same day named best jazz album of 2011 by NPR’s “A Blog Supreme.”) They began with Zenón’s arrangement of Rafael Hernández’s “Silencio,” Zenón and his alto saxophone having no trouble setting the tune’s mesmerizing melody in motion despite the absence of the extra horns. Zenón also took the first solo, bopping from foot to foot as it built toward a controlled frenzy of a climax. Pianist Luis Perdomo followed with something more straightforwardly lyrical, and bassist Hans Glawischnig and drummer Henry Cole kept the complex rhythms churning in precision throughout. There was a certain genius, one might say, to how the musicians kept chopping up that hypnotic melody together on their last few passes through it, the seeming randomness of the interruptions to the oft-repeated line executed casually and cleanly.
The album’s two tunes by Sylvia Rexach, a ’50s-era favorite of Zenón’s mother, followed, both of them balladic in feel. “Alma Adentro” opened with piano and bass, with Cole switching to mallets as he entered the piece. Perdomo took the first solo, too, after Zenón had stated the theme, and an instant of quiet separated it from Zenón stepping back in with a riveting solo of his own afterward. “Olas y Arenas” followed with its own lush lyricism, and built to Zenón’s most dazzling solo of the set. At its most intense, it seemed almost as if Charlie Parker himself had been set loose on Puerto Rican pop music. And then it slowed down and sunk satisfyingly back into Rexach’s pretty melody.
The fourth stretched-out tune of Zenón’s hourlong set was Tite Curet Alonso’s “Tiemblas,” which put the spotlight on Glawischnig and Cole more than what had come before it. It opened with a mood-setting bass intro, and throughout it seemed freer than the album version. Cole had kept fluidly and impressively busy at his kit throughout the night, but on “Tiemblas” he got a solo as well, and he made the most of it.
“I went to school here a couple of years back,” Zenón announced at his set’s conclusion, “as did a couple of guys in the band.” (Those would be Glawischnig and Cole; Perdomo moved directly to New York from his native Venezuela.) It had been a highly enjoyable homecoming, for them and the audience as well.
The Iyer trio’s set was different in several respects. None of them studied at Berklee, and they ignored their Grammy-nominated and critically lauded album Historicity in favor of new material, much of it to appear on Iyer’s forthcoming album, Accelerando, due out in March. Iyer was also chattier onstage than Zenón had been. And droller: “I play piano,” he said, as he began introducing his band mates from his seat at the keyboard. Pause. “That’s why I’m sitting here.” (Or a bit later, having his mention of Historicity applauded by crowd, responding, to laughter, “I guess some of you downloaded it for free.”)
But there were similarities, too. The trio brought modern jazz interpretations to pop tunes when it wasn’t working out on Iyer originals. And the three of them, like Zenón’s quartet, have stayed together for an admirably long time. Iyer noted that bassist Stephan Crump has been with him since 1999, and is also a composer and bandleader in his own right. Iyer said that his drummer, Marcus Gilmore, joined them eight years ago while a junior in high school, adding that Gilmore “has family ties to Boston” without bothering to spell them out. (Roxbury’s own Roy Haynes is Gilmore’s grandfather.)
Those long ties showed in their cohesiveness. The trio worked very much as a unit. Crump made more frequent use of his bow than most bassists do, and even when playing pizzicato avoided routine walking, preferring judicious accenting of whatever Iyer and Gilmore were up to. Gilmore demonstrated why he’s in such demand as one of today’s finest young drummers, having also performed with Chick Corea, Gonzalo Rubalcaba, Dave Douglas and other of Iyer’s heroes. Gimore was to varying degrees vigorously propulsive and gracefully empathetic, depending on what the moment called for, and took a brilliant extended solo on the Iyer original “Actions Speak,” toward the set’s end. Iyer himself displayed his formidable chops, which can range from pyrotechnic flurries of notes to lovely little single-note lines handled entirely by his right hand. His idiosyncratic compositional gifts were in evidence, too, on the tunes “Bode,” “Optimism,” “Actions Speak,” “Abundance” and “Hood,” the first three of which will be on that new album. (The trio had no trouble adapting “Abudance,” which gets guitar and tabla backing on Iyer’s album Tirtha; it started off at Berklee with the rich tone of Crump’s bass contrasting with light tinkling from the right end of Iyer’s piano.)
The originality of Iyer’s work can call to mind such brilliantly off-center predecessors as Andrew Hill and Herbie Nichols, and one of the set’s (and the album’s) covers was a supple read of Nichols’ “Wildflower,” an engagingly dissonant swirl of tradition and modernism. Crump took a dark, bluesy solo early on, and Gilmore got one later on as well.
A pair of pop covers from Accelerando was similarly sophisticated and pleasing. One of them, the Michael Jackson-associated “Human Nature,” Iyer had already recorded alone for his recent album Solo. So had Miles Davis, on his 1985 album You’re Under Arrest, a late-career example of Davis’ nose for charming, improvisation-worthy melodies. But Davis used the tune more as a simple, recognizable break from the funk he was emphasizing then; in the hands of Iyer and his trio, “Human Nature” is more stretched out and artier. Iyer splintered the melody in places before doubling back to it, Gilmore’s drumming sizzled exquisitely, and the tune ended with Crump bowing the familiar melody along with Iyer’s piano.
For all that, the revelation of the evening may have been the trio’s take on “The Star of a Story,” a tune recorded in the late ’70s by the disco group Heatwave. It revealed Iyer’s own shrewd eye for improbable jazz covers. (Also his apparent affection for the music of Michael Jackson. Iyer told the audience that “The Star of a Story” had been written by the author of Jackson’s hit “Thriller,” Rod Temperton.) My 5-year-old heard the track from the album a couple of days later and announced, “This song rocks!” It rocked live at Berklee that night, too, Gilmore rocking especially hard as the music built toward a climactic ending that had Iyer playing rumbling bass notes on his piano while Crump bowed his bass.
Like much of what preceded it that night, “The Star of a Story” was modern jazz at its most sophisticated, taking on pop music without pandering.