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Vijay Iyer: Solo

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The improvisatory, experimental culture of jazz means that its audience is fixated on finding something new. Jazz critics have embraced Vijay Iyer because he has taught himself an original piano language. You hear echoes of other pianists in his work (Andrew Hill, Muhal Richard Abrams). But listening to Iyer is learning to trust an unfamiliar creative process, containing melodic/rhythmic role reversals, counterintuitive structural asymmetries, interrupted momentums, astringent timbres, notes in competing oceanic layers and splayed chordal figures. Iyer creates tensions among antithetical forces and then resolves them. To speak of his chops is redundant. His stunning facility is a function of, and inseparable from, his proprietary concept.

The music on Solo sometimes sounds self-consciously intellectual. Monk’s “Epistrophy” is a vast tapestry that contains many elements, only one of which, cleverly, is “Epistrophy.” What Iyer plays is too angular and austere to be pretty, but it is often strangely beautiful. Of all the jazz versions of “Darn That Dream,” his may be the most imaginative and the richest, with its jagged, honest, dense depiction of emotion. “Human Nature” was pop ephemera when Michael Jackson sang it; Iyer fills it out, all but drowns it, and improbably completes it even as he acknowledges one of its addictive little hooks (“Why…why…”). There are two famous Ellington pieces, “Black and Tan Fantasy” and “Fleurette Africaine.” Iyer sounds like he starts absolutely fresh with them, the former built of large imposing blocks, the latter darkly whispered.

Of the Iyer originals, “Autoscopy” (what other jazz musician would name a tune “Autoscopy”?) boldly, successfully portrays an out-of-body experience. “Patterns” is also an Iyer-esque title, in its implicit assumption that complex designs, fully realized, are ends in themselves. Solo is Iyer’s first unaccompanied recording and it reveals one more thing that he does extraordinarily well.