A stark, black-and-white, distant photo of the Statue of Liberty; composition titles that reflect crises of infrastructure and systemic racism; an underlying tension in the music throughout; all these elements suggest that Uneasy, the new trio album by pianist Vijay Iyer, bassist Linda May Han Oh, and drummer Tyshawn Sorey, could be the definitive political work of this year. But describing this record—the first from this group and the first trio work from Iyer since 2015’s Break Stuff—as merely political would be painfully reductive. Even though tracks like the Black Lives Matter-inspired “Combat Breathing,” which Iyer first performed in 2014, or the whiplashing micro-suite “Uneasy” do embody the turbulence of the last decade, the trio is pursuing something greater here.
That pursuit is of the near-boundless potential of new collaboration, in lockstep with the Nobel-worthy chemistry that Iyer, Oh, and Sorey demonstrate. Take “Combat Breathing” again. The piece begins with staccato riffing by Iyer, then crescendos and climbs like some great tower of antiquity, his hands sweeping great lengths of ivory at its peak. As Iyer’s playing descends, he finds a comfortable groove with Oh while Sorey urges them on from the kit; the two mirror each other’s riffs until she begins to vary the melody. The way Oh’s solo then evolves out of this moment, with the group’s dynamic shifts allowing it to blossom, feels organic and conversational. It evokes the highest ideals of creative music: not just taking turns but using one’s own to spur another’s.
Eight of the album’s 10 tracks are Iyer originals; the others are incredible reworkings of Cole Porter’s “Night and Day,” based off of McCoy Tyner’s work on Joe Henderson’s Inner Urge version (recorded in 1964), and Geri Allen’s “Drummer’s Song.” Iyer, Oh, and Sorey take Allen’s original off-orbit three-minute calypso and extend it into a seven-minute vehicle for unified group expression. Here, as elsewhere, the trio continually morphs as it explores. As past and future intersect, the possibilities of the present become limitless.