Vijay Iyer Trio
Vijay Iyer piano
Stephan Crump double bass
Marcus Gilmore drums
Recorded June 2014 at Avatar Studios, New York
Engineer: James A. Farber
Assistant: Akihiro Nishimura
Produced by Manfred Eicher
“He often said that he would sit down at a piano someday and show me how jazz worked, and that when I finally understood blue notes and swung notes, the heavens would part and my life would be transformed.”
–Teju Cole, Open City
After his imaginative ECM debut, pianist Vijay Iyer returns to the label with bassist Stephan Crump and drummer Marcus Gilmore. Although in operation for over a decade, the trio still finds room to grow, and rarely in such giant leaps as those documented on Break Stuff. The title is Iyer’s mission statement: rupture as rapture. The music hanging from its rafters is theory in practice.
Iyer has been blessed with a peerless tonal command of his instrument. Like the greats that inspire him daily, his artistry is summed up in the word touch. His composing reveals another distinguishing characteristic: a penchant for tempering beauty with something obfuscated. This allows us to appreciate the role of either toward the consummation of the musical experience. Not everything, he seems to say, can be sunshine and roses. We also need moonlight and thorns.
The atmospheres of Iyer’s trio are remarkable for using such minimal means, and nowhere so evocatively than in the three avian-themed tracks peppered throughout. The well-rounded “Starlings” introduces us to this album’s freshly baked sounds. Already, two things are noticeable. First is that Iyer’s descriptive prowess is as formidable as it is organic. Second is that listeners are invited to bring whatever associations they might have to the music without judgment. What sounds like a flock overhead to one may to another feel like the city streets to another. “Geese,” in fact, proves to be as much about nature as nurture as it morphs from harmonic rumination into urban sprawl. Even the evocatively titled “Wrens,” which ends the album, reaches back with arms bangled in classical chord progressions toward sublime narrative origins. Between the latter two tracks is nestled one of the album’s heartfelt tributes. “Countdown” pays deference to John Coltrane, starting off small but playing big in some of the trio’s densest texturing on record. Gilmore reads between the lines like no one’s business and adds further grounding to other classics by Thelonious Monk (“Work”) and, in a Gershwin-flavored piano solo, Billy Strayhorn (“Blood Count”). In these one can hear the nakedness of Iyer’s creative process, all its trials and errors that occur in the name of seeking. His nod to DJ Robert Hood is likewise into its own negative spaces, laying microtonal harmonies over consonant foundations.
“Taking Flight” is another portrait of the musician’s world. Here, too, balance reigns, weighing on one pan constant travel and dislocation, but on the other the connections achievable only through performing. As indicated by its mixture of reggae and impressionistic touches in the higher register, this tune embraces whatever life has in store. Such openness imbues the remaining tracks with like spirit. Whether in the amethyst “Chorale” or the more ornamental “Diptych,” in both of which Iyer’s rhythm section makes subtle sweeps of brilliance, the trio rounds every angle to jigsaw fit. Yet none of the above is so confident as the title track, the sway of which recalls the opening scene of Spike Lee’s Malcolm X, in which the director and Denzel Washington own the streets, clipped and shined.
Iyer is making the most effective music of his career, and there could be no better place for it to flourish than ECM. Like the missing note in the arpeggio of “Mystery Woman,” the affiliation has opened a gap of opportunity, thereby revealing experience as the most important form of improvisation there is.
(To hear samples of Break Stuff, you may watch the EPK above or click here.)