Sugar Club, Dublin
27 April 2006
Contemporary jazz is an exacting art. As the music grows and absorbs elements from increasingly diverse influences, it seems that as a consequence many contemporary groups are formed to work on very specific concepts and ideas. Faced with such a potentially broad panorama, many artists choose to use a sharp-focus lens.
Vijay Iyer exemplifies this aspect of the music. Informed by a Masters degree in mathematics, advanced studies in Western and Indian Classical music, and with a post-Monk understanding of jazz harmony, his compositional and performance techniques are fusions of multifarious elements into one sound, unmistakably his own. Only when an artist’s message has crystallised into a strong personal voice can they exact an influence on aspiring students, and Iyer’s increasing prominence in the world of contemporary piano is testament to his attainment of such a voice. His quartet, with Rudresh Mahanthappa on alto saxophone, Stephan Crump on bass and Marcus Gilmore on drums, also has a well-defined collective voice of its own. This is evidence of a lot of time on the road, clear leadership and a good balance of individuality within the group.
This performance at the Sugar Club was a relentless foray into the soundworld conjured up by Iyer’s compositions. All of the music was written by Iyer and taken from the group’s recent release Reimagining. With an extensive use of polyrhythmic textures, compound meters and chromatic harmony, his pieces are springboards for intense improvisational drives that test the limits of the underlying forms, the aplomb of the band, and the mental capacity of the audience. This is not music for the faint-hearted – it is meticulously calculated violence.
Critics of Iyer’s approach to the piano describe him as one-dimensional, that his style is not pianistic in the way Brad Mehldau or Keith Jarrett approach the instrument. Perhaps they are right, but in a way it is almost incidental that Iyer plays the piano. The instrument is a mere vehicle for his expression of a philosophy of music that trancends the mere notes and focuses the listener on the compositional structure. While with Jarrett or Mehldau the expression of melody transcends the form and composition, and obscures the skeleton on which the improvisation is based, Iyer’s music bares the bones.
Rudresh has as much of a distinct sound on the saxophone as Iyer does on the piano. Playing with an extraordinarily open throat and a correspondingly huge sound, his solos were raw and cutting, with an incredibly dense chromaticism that at times would make Steve Coleman sound like Johnny Hodges in comparison. He also demonstrated a lyrical side however, and in the brief islands of calm which dotted an otherwise stormy sea he played with an almost flute-like tone, exploring the saxophone’s potential for producing micro-tonal colourations of a held note, an area no doubt inspired by his own research into Indian Classical music.
Marcus Gilmore, only twenty years of age and already playing in one of the most challenging groups in today’s music will, in my opinion, prove to be one of the most accomplished drummers of our time, and will go on to occupy a place in the highest echelon of jazz drummers currently populated by such luminaries as Elvin Jones, Tony Williams or Marcus’ grandfather, Roy Haynes. While peppering the music with a high density of rhythmic activity he remained relaxed and in control, keeping the form clear and showing an incredibly mature understanding of the compositions.
Stephan Crump, surrounded on all sides by musicians who took every opportunity to superimpose their own subdivisions on, around and through the metrical form, took it upon himself to be the anchor for the group, and as such provided the music with a much-needed foundation and pulse. His solos also brought a welcome contrast to the group dynamic, with a beautiful simplicity and purity of tone.
Gone are the days when an audience could expect the up-tempo tune of the set to be followed by a contrasting ballad. Iyer’s lens is focused on high intensity; for one night in Dublin he invited us to see it his way.
Published on 1 July 2006