Vijay Iyer has been up to a lot since his trio recorded its last album, 2012’s fantastic Accelerando. Iyer is the most celebrated pianist in jazz-he may be the most celebrated musician in jazz right now-and that gives him great creative license. He’s used it. With spoken-word artist Mike Ladd, he led a multimedia effort about soldiers returning from war (2013’s Holding It Down: The Veterans’ Dreams Project). In 2014 he released third-stream music with a string quartet (his ECM leader debut, Mutations), and performed his score to a mesmerizing film (Radhe Radhe: Rites of Holi, now on DVD and Blu-ray) that used Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring as a starting point. In the meantime he was also awarded a MacArthur Fellowship and got himself appointed to the faculty at Harvard University.
For all his experimenting, it is with the simplest format-the piano-bass-drums trio-that Iyer has most distinguished himself. Anyone will stand out from the crowd when pairing with a poet or leading ensembles featuring electronics and tabla. But to create music so distinctive in the most common of combos? That takes some ingenuity. Like the greatest pianists in jazz history-Bud Powell, Art Tatum, Thelonious Monk, Bill Evans-Iyer could never be mistaken for anyone else. Whether playing jazz standards, covering pop songs or performing one of his own compositions, Iyer’s attacks and nuances are immediately identifiable, so obviously his. The wild part is that, for an artist so obsessed with precision and so enamored of a mathematical approach, his music is so accessible.
Break Stuff is about creative destruction-as well as “the break,” a phrase that Iyer uses to describe “a span of time in which to act.” With his longstanding trio featuring bassist Stephan Crump and drummer Marcus Gilmore, Iyer reimagines tunes by jazz giants, recasts pieces from his 2013 large-ensemble project “Open City,” reconstructs material from his 2012 Museum of Modern Art commission “Break Stuff” and trots out new tunes. They all intertwine so perfectly with one another.
Iyer’s approach is at once angular and melodic, at turns delicate and muscular. At this point, Crump and Gilmore know him so well, and vice versa, that every moment of interaction is completely empathetic, almost telepathic. That ethos is firmly in place on the latter half of “Taking Flight,” as Gilmore’s drumming, incorporating elements of reggae and hip-hop, leads the band while Crump and Iyer punctuate perfectly. “Chorale” is a study in tightly woven contrasts, Iyer skipping and galloping across the keys over Crump’s lumbering bass and Gilmore’s restlessly skittering percussion.
Each tune brims with tension and dynamics, even one as simple as “Hood,” which employs the acoustic rhythm section as a conduit for techno music. Despite the repetition and minimalism, the song never flags; rather, the drama builds, as Iyer plops his notes and chords ever so slightly off the beat, just enough to create a sense of foreboding. There are pretty songs, such as “Wrens” and other tunes named for birds, and there are creative revisions of challenging compositions: a redo of Thelonious Monk’s “Work” that adds spaces and pauses, a twist on John Coltrane’s “Countdown” that incorporates West African rhythms, and a beautiful solo take of Billy Strayhorn’s “Blood Count.” The title track brings to bear every aforementioned element-lovely lines, powerful punctuations, breakbeats and a devotion to the dramatic. In the final analysis, it is Iyer’s vision and individuality, but also his bond with his trio, that makes Break Stuff such a smashing success.