Savoy Jazz SVY 475

Simulated Progress
Pi Recordings PI 16

Keeping a whole hand firmly in post-bop contemporary jazz, a couple of fingers in more atonal pursuits as well as a couple more in the sounds of his South Asian heritage, New York’s Vijay Iyer is the very epitome of the modern mainstream pianist.

Self-possessed and unflappable, these CDs – recorded two months apart – reveal two Vijay Iyers. On REIMAGINING, the newest disc by his own band, he appears controlled and buttoned-down, as unhurried a stylist as Hank Jones and Tommy Flanagan were in the 1950s and 1960s and possessing what (acoustic) Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock exhibited in the 1960s and 1970s. Yet as part of the cooperative Fieldwork trio on SIMULATED PROGRESS, he reveals a hitherto rough-hewn edge, laying into the keys with the heavy touch of a McCoy Tyner or a Cooper-Moore. Is the switcheroo part and parcel of the company he keeps?

The answer seems to be yes. His compositions for Fieldwork are nowhere near as restrained as the ones on REIMAGINING. More crucially, alto and sopranino saxophonist Steve Lehman and drummer Elliot Humberto Kavee, who wrote the other tracks, are there to keep the pot boiling, and incidentally spur the pianist to tougher voicing when he plays. In contrast, all the compositions on the other CD – save John Lennon’s “Imagine” – are Iyer’s. The context may be more secure as well. He’s been playing with alto saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa for nearly a decade and bassist Stephan Crump since 2000. Eighteen-year-old Marcus Gilmore is the combo’s drums phenom.

As an aside, since this CD was made Kavee has ceded the percussion chair to Tyshawn Sorey, who formerly played in Iyer’s own band. Considering the pianist is now the only remaining founding member of the combo – Lehman replaced tenor saxophonist Aaron Stewart – it’s an open question whether in future Fieldwork’s vibe will drift closer to that displayed by Iyer’s combo.

Right now its rough, in-your-face power explodes out of the speakers on most of the 11 tunes –one more than on REIMAGINING. Part of this force may be compensation for no bass player. But it may also be that, without his name above the title, Iyer feels he can be more experimental.

Certainly there’s nothing on the other CD that compares to “Infogee Dub”, a pressure-filled line, stretched taut with the tension from the pianist’s pedal point continuo. As Iyer maintains a dark chordal ostinato during the piece – with the very occasional cluster of higher notes – space is made for Kavee’s slicing and double bouncing drum undertones and Lehman’s limning of the serpentine theme. Together, the combination nearly creates waveform pulsations.

Multi-vibrated and often trilling, Lehman’s soloing too sounds looser than it is on sessions under his own name. On “Gaudi” for instance, he growls from deep inside his throat, finally hooking up with the pianist’s modal pummeling to create an atmosphere of suspended time. Wrapping Tyner and Dave Brubeck implications together, Iyer’s cadences and arpeggios are given further form by the drummer’s hard-edged splashed flams and compressed runs. In contrast, “Media Studies” floats on quivering reverb from Lehman’s horn, an intermittent drum beat and plink-plank piano patterning. Sputtering, the saxophonist’s pulses echo the pianist’s low-frequency runs.

Although there are sections of the tracks that are low-key, most of the playing is up tempo, with Iyer exhibiting cross patterning dynamics, left handed comping and scattered, tremolo lines, Kavee self-possessed with polyrhythmic bounces, cymbal crashes and tubular echoes, and the saxophonist ululates sorpranino trills or the splayed coarseness of a bopper like Jackie McLean.

Since most of Iyer’s dynamic modules are involved with rhythmic comping and near prepared-piano sound-making, it’s almost as if there’s another pianist with the same name concerned with tropes such as recontexturalizing a Beatles tune with high frequency, duple-metre arpeggio and, hard, jagged slurs from Mahanthappa on “Revolutions” – no prize for guessing which one.

Ditto for the light swingers that are “Cardio” and “Infogee’s Cakewalk”, with the former’s high-frequency kinetic cadences supposedly reflect North Indian timbres. Yet the pianist’s habit of propelling handfuls of notes and cascading chords seems to reflect the power of Tyner’s or Oscar Peterson’s mature style rather than Carnatic variations. Iyer’s allegro chiming, high-frequency vibrations and the saxophonist spinning out rubato whole notes on the latter, put one in mind of a Phil Woods collaboration with Flanagan, though Gilmore does slap out a cross-handed almost Native American rhythm on his part.

More interestingly, later in the program, as the drummer cross patterns and cymbal crashes and the pianist flashes out concentrated and rhythmically charged arpeggios, Mahanthappa introduces his diaphragm vibrations and reed-biting obbligatos with nasal, shenai-sounding output.

Then there’s “Song for Midwood”, named for an area in Brooklyn known as Little Pakistan. Despite the implications of the title, there’s no false exoticism. Beginning with a strong bass line and dynamic overtones from the pianist, the theme is passed back and forth between the alto saxophonist and Iyer, eventually resolving itself with diamond-hard tone shards from Mahanthappa. Following basso profondo strummed patterns from Crump, the conclusion rests on chiming vibrations from Iyer that almost match Gilmore’s rim clicks.

If only a couple of the pieces didn’t end with very obvious fades, and there wasn’t an undercurrent of distraction in some of the playing elsewhere, REIMAGINING would be as memorable as SIMULATED PROGRESS.

As it stands, both together provider a fuller picture of Iyer’s maturing musical development.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Reimagining: 1. Revolutions 2. Inertia 3. Song for Midwood 4. Infogee’s Cakewalk 5. The Big Almost 6. Cardio 7. Experience 8. Composites 9. Phalanx. 10. Imagine

Personnel: Reimagining: Rudresh Mahanthappa (alto saxophone); Vijay Iyer (piano); Stephan Crump (bass); Marcus Gilmore (drums)

Track Listing: Simulated: 1. Headlong 2. Transgression 3. Tips 4. Telematic 5. Media Studies 6. Gaudi 7. Transitions 8. Peril 9. Reprise 10. Infogee Dub 11. Durations

Personnel: Simulated: Steve Lehman (alto and sopranino saxophone); Vijay Iyer (piano); Elliot Humberto Kavee (drums)