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Vijay Iyer at Montreal International Jazz Festival

June 25, 2010

Those in the know, know Vijay Iyer. With a recent slew of accolades surrounding his new release Historicity (including top ten nods in The New York Times, The LA Times, The Chicago Tribune, and NPR among others), he has started to amass a considerable following of both jazz aficionados and casual listeners alike.

Nowhere was this more in evidence than Iyer’s most recent performance at the Montreal International Jazz Fest last Friday night. The intimate Salle Gésu was packed with audience members of all types ranging from jazz beat writers and music students to festival diehards and the uninitiated.

Drawing mainly on material from their latest release, the trio (supported by Stephan Crump on bass and Marcus Gilmore on drums) kicked off the set with a seamless medley of “Helix” and the disjunct yet hard-swinging title track. Iyer’s inventive arrangement of Michael Jackson’s “Human Nature” displayed the pianist’s knack for reinvigorating classic tunes while still preserving their original character. Beginning with a beautiful piano/bass ostinato based on opening two chords, the Jackson tune shifted into a hip-hop shuffle groove executed to perfection by Gilmore.

Closing out the first set were covers of saxophonist’s Julian Hemphill’s “Dogan A.D.,” and an Iyer original, the appropriately titled up-tempo “Cardio.” It’s interesting to note that after approximately 45 minutes of music, this marked the first applause the band received. This was not due to a misinformed audience or to any fault of the playing (which was definitely not the case), but rather to the trio’s ability to shed the staid conventions of jazz: sequential solos, finite forms, head-solo-head arrangements, the clear separation of composition and improvisation, and delineated applause. Conversely, the band’s approach is to treat each piece and its individual components as part of an uninterrupted whole. The result is music that blurs traditional boundaries in service of a greater aesthetic and emotional journey.

The second set began with covers of Leonard Bernstein’s “Somewhere” from West Side Story and Andrew Hill’s “Smokestack.” Even in its deconstructed form, the Bernstein piece was rendered with an immediate poignancy that belied the band’s youth. The final piece of the set was another cover, Ronnie Foster’s “Mystic Brew,” which effectively encapsulated the pianist’s distinct musical lexicon: the use of the piano’s extreme low register, repeated notes, chromatic angularity, a percussive rhythmic concept, and impressionistic chordal voicings.

While Iyer is the ‘official’ leader of the group, the ensemble clearly works as one musical unit functioning with a near-like telepathic connection. Each member is constantly vacillating between solistic or accompanying roles adding what is needed to the music at any given moment. And this is to say nothing of the supreme musicianship of Iyer’s cohorts: Stefan Crump who is equally adept at bowing coloristic textures as he is with earthy pizzicatos and straight walking; and Marcus Gilmore who performs the most fluid swing and hip-hop patterns with unparalleled precision.

It wouldn’t be a Montreal crowd without the requisite encore performance, or in this case, two. The trio returned to a standing ovation to perform their version of M.I.A.’s “Galang” (replete with a pulsating Bollywood influenced groove) followed by “Becoming,” which tapered to a near whisper. Surprised by the second encore, coming as it did after nearly 100 minutes of music, the ensemble returned for their second and final encore, an odd-metered rendition of Stevie Wonder’s “Big Brother.”

This sort of unanimous esteem speaks volumes to the affective power of Iyer’s music and his ability to communicate across various musical backgrounds. Following in a recent line of jazz piano trios to gain critical acclaim and mass public appeal (i.e., E.S.T., The Bad Plus, Brad Mehldau), Iyer seems poised to take his place among them – the torch has been passed.

Originally Published