Last year, before Accelerando was released, I wrote in Jazzwise that “the Vijay Iyer Trio has the potential to alter the scope, ambition and language of jazz piano forever.” And after seeing the trio once again last night, the first time since their two-night stay at the Vortex last May, I’ll stick by that. That easily ascertained potential has been brewing a long time (since Panoptic Modes) and has probably by now reached a tipping point, as the trio is already influencing new bands such as the highly promising Dice Factory as well as a generation of music students. Iyer presumably is being taught in the more progressively minded conservatoires already, and he had the published sheet music of the tunes with him, he told the audience last night (“just three copies”). He’s also teaching go-ahead workshops himself when not on the road and today he’s doing one in Rotterdam as the tour moves to the continent, and Iyer has already taken the reins at the advanced Banff Centre jazz and creative workshop in Canada succeeding Dave Douglas there.
The much talked about phrase “maths jazz” or “math jazz” if you’re American is relevant with Iyer, although there’s clearly no algorithm at work, thankfully. It may be a hindrance more than a help but terminology is lacking with this remarkable pianist/composer so far, and it’s needed for descriptive purposes, as the music is still so new-sounding, and also so expansive. Even though essentially it’s a straightforward piano trio (and there are so many of these) and Iyer’s use of droney tambura-like electronics is fairly limited (on ‘Accelerando’ here) the trio covers vast swathes of territory musically. Often the three (Iyer with bassist Stephan Crump and drummer Marcus Gilmore) improvise in different time signatures and operate on pulses as much as rhythms, with the tunes throwing up different possibilities. Sometimes there’s a hint of reggae, other times it’s Herbie Nichols-flavoured bebop. I was a little disappointed by the interpretation of ‘Human Nature’ which only got going after a while, Vijay seemed a bit stiff, helped along though by eager audience noises, and Iyer is possibly not at his best covering relatively straightforward songs. His solo piano recorded version of the Michael Jackson-associated song I think is his best interpretation of it rather than the arrangement for trio. Also, if you compare the way the trio interprets MIA’s ‘Galang’ (not played here) it’s much more immersive and the more sophisticated the song is the better for Iyer, hence the very effective treatment of Rod Temperton’s ‘The Star of a Story’.
Iyer used heavy volume increasingly for more visceral effects as the set unfolded, so while the early medley that featured ‘Bode’ had a more improv-inclined sensibility, with Crump to the fore, later the set could have become a more rock-inclined jam with all the extra volume and Iyer’s big chords drawing increased excitement. Crump was very much on form and the excellent sound in the Purcell Room captured his vibrato and bowed effects admirably, while Gilmore is so expert at anticipating the direction of the music and adding his own ideas: he’s constantly there with a rhythm that’s more like an astringent melody unto itself. When he plays softly too, it’s a rhapsody on the drums. Somehow I think the trio’s music will be modified and possibly simplified as the years go by as it is so far ahead of what anyone can reasonably take in at one hearing no matter how many times you have heard the trio play. Scope, ambition, language: it’s all there with the Vijay Iyer trio, as this powerful unit goes from strength to strength, with Tirtha tune ‘Abundance’ the pick of the set.
The Vijay Iyer trio top. Photo taken at the German ECHO awards (Monique Wuestenhagen/ACT)