Vijay Iyer Trio

ACT Music +Video ACT 9524-2

By Ken Waxman

Perceptive enough to realize that an improvising musician must constantly change, pianist Vijay Iyer has experimented with several combo formats and choice of material during his recording career. Accelerando, his 16th CD, thus eschews outright experimentation or nods to his South Asian heritage to concentrate on the story-telling available from carefully selected tunes played in classic piano trio format.

Although the configuration, with bassist Stephan Crump and drummer Marcus Gilmore, may be classic, the program isn’t. Iyer shows his taste by including under-recorded pieces by jazz masters, Duke Ellington’s “The Village of The Virgins”, Herbie Nichols’ “Wildflower” and a miniaturization of Henry Threadgill’s “Little Pocket Size Demons”, five originals, plus pop tunes associated with Heatwave, Flying Lotus and most saliently Michael Jackson.

In truth he sounds more comfortable on the contemporary material than the Ellington. Complete with drum rolls, walking bass lines plus syncopated harmonies and passing chords which appear self-consciously jazzy, “The Village of The Virgins” suggests Iyer won’t become a revivalist any time soon. Meanwhile Michael Jackson’s “Human Nature” is given a treatment that transcends its hit-parade origins, while “Little Pocket Size Demons” is transformed in such a way that this stripped-down variant could be the equal of Threadgill’s, original recorded with a brass-heavy larger band.

The trio frees “Human Nature” of its inoffensive pleasantness, giving it a harder edge with left-handed piano pressure, drum bounces and bass string glides. Re-orchestrated with guitar-like strums and cascading keyboard glissandi, the melody that reappears after the turnaround is transformed from pop bauble to a jazz precious stone. As for the Threadgill line; while Crump’s screeching arco rums and Gilmore’s paradiddles deconstructs it, Iyer’s tremolo piano pressure preserves the pseudo-marching-band theme. At the same time he gives it a different emphasis each time it’s repeated.

This dualism extends to his originals, which match Ahmad Jamal-like timing with jocular iPad-era pulses. “Action Speaks” for instance could pass for a bebop line, complete with measured rim shots, if Iyer’s staccato pacing and dynamic accelerations didn’t give the 21st Century game away. Similarly the woody yet unforced bass solo on “Optimism” is thoroughly modern, with emphasized, but not sharp tones echoed by a kinetic piano that is intense but never loses the beat.

With Accelerando Iyer has created a Sweet Sixteen party many would like to attend.

Tracks: Bode; Optimism; The Star Of A Story ; Human Nature [Trio Extension]; Wildflower; Mmmhmm; Little Pocket Size Demons; Accelerando; Actions Speak; The Village of The Virgins

Personnel: Vijay Iyer (piano); Stephan Crump (bass) and Marcus Gilmore (drums)

—For New York City Jazz Record May 2012