There may never have been a more intellectually rarefied, more profoundly academic jazz musician than Vijay Iyer, who earned a master’s degree in physics at 22 and followed up with a Ph.D. from Berkeley in the cognitive science of music. His forbidding, complex, austere creations might be described as jazz for nerds.
Iyer is an academic, but he is entirely self-taught as a pianist and possesses the infinite free choices of the autodidact. His music contains his South Asian heritage and also a vast array of interests and influences, including diverse world musics, his own academic disciplines, rock ‘n’ roll and a preoccupation with John Coltrane (who was strongly affected by Indian music). The outcome is heady drones, swirling sonic washes and endlessly intricate counterpoint. Iyer’s music fulfills a deep-seated need of many improvised-music fans: to hear what has never been heard before. Many players promise it. Few deliver. Iyer does.
Reimagining carries over alto saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa and bassist Stephan Crump from Iyer’s widely praised previous recording, Blood Sutra. Eighteen-year-old Marcus Gilmore is the new drummer. All sound entirely at home in this very special musical house, especially Mahanthappa, who fills the tiniest spaces in Iyer’s pianistic densities with bright penetrations, in fierce contrapuntal continuums. There are no comfort zones-no familiar rhythmic patterns, no beginnings or middles or ends. Yet pieces like “Experience” and “Revolutions” make you remember the defining moments of the John Coltrane Quartet, when musical careening suddenly coheres into a liberated lyricism you never saw coming. Meanwhile, the heavy, ominous chords at first surround John Lennon’s innocent “Imagine” in darkness, but break through into a more hopeful single-note affirmation of the melody at the end.
The most interesting question about Iyer is how, having fully elaborated a unique and specific musical space, he goes forward from here.