Vijay Iyer: Uneasy (ECM 2692)

Vijay Iyer
Uneasy

Vijay Iyer piano
Linda May Han Oh double bass
Tyshawn Sorey drums
Recorded December 2019 at Oktaven Audio Studio, Mount Vernon, NY
Engineer: Ryan Streber
Mastering: Christoph Stickel
Cover photo: Woong Chul An
Produced by Vijay Iyer and Manfred Eicher
Release date: April 9, 2021

while in the midst of horror
we fed on beauty – and that,
my love, is what sustained us.

–Rita Dove

The term “microaggression,” often thrown around in today’s politically wounded climate, is a misnomer. There’s nothing “micro” about the injustice that a (seemingly) offhanded remark can inflict. Such impacts are felt at the macro level, returning to the systemic ashes from which they spring like so many phoenixes of abuse. These feelings and more circulate throughout my blood vessels as I listen to Uneasy, Vijay Iyer’s seventh leader date for ECM. Says the pianist of his chosen title, “Maybe, since the word contains its own opposite, it reminds us that the most soothing, healing music is often born of and situated within profound unrest; and conversely, the most turbulent music may contain stillness, coolness, even wisdom.” To unpack this semantic time capsule, he welcomes bassist Linda May Han Oh and drummer Tyshawn Sorey into a studio workout of spectral proportions.

The opening “Children Of Flint,” like much of what follows, bears the scars of recent social history. Dedicated to the residents of its titular Michigan town, where families were tragically deprived of safe drinking water from 2014 to 2019, it blends its first blush into a firmament of bass and piano before cymbals greet a new day. Already, we know that we are in for distinctly animate(d) music that moves like the wind: swift, powerful, and able to adapt to any structure that would threaten to impede its passage. “Combat Breathing” (the latter word, of course, completing a larger-than-ever circuit of tragedy) handles its subjects with equal care. Oh and Sorey till a powerful soil into which Iyer throws handful after handful of melodic seeds. Oh waters them with her solo, keeping one set of fingers on the strings and the other curled around Sorey’s hand as they navigate the rays of a setting sun.

This diurnal cycle of life requires stasis to explode and vice versa. Hence, the melodic forest that is Cole Porter’s “Night And Day,” which in this iteration inhales more than it exhales, as if to protect itself from the political oxygen deprivation of which it was an unwitting(?) reflection. The bassing is so exquisite in its regard for textural detail, a signal of agency and purpose. Drawing on McToy Tyner’s cartographic precedent, it is the very embodiment of exposition as practice. The polyrhythmic “Drummer’s Song” is a nod to another master composer, Geri Allen, whose spirit blossoms in this rendition, born of an obvious amount of consideration. Each movement connects to the next, ball to socket, until the choreography lays itself on an altar of forgiveness.

“Touba” (cowritten with Mike Ladd) has a more insistent quality, which by its understatement pulls a thread of unwavering allyship through varicolored beads. Iyer’s unbound spirit here is glorious, singing of freedom without forgetting the sacrifices suffered to flex it like the historical muscle it has become, while the groove-oriented “Configurations” reveals a sonic Rubik’s cube that trio coaxes it into a solved state by breath alone. In this instance, virtuosity is a necessary means of engagement. Sorey’s drumming glistens with the persuasiveness of an ice cream cone in July.

The title track is the album’s solemn soul. Fueled by self-awareness and grit, it sheds its aquatic nature to run on land. A phenomenal yet brief image takes shape when Iyer plays single high notes, as if suspending the action before diving into the fray. If this one looks inward, then “Retrofit” looks forward, holding on to that which is good instead of merely abandoning it for the sake of the new. This is the trio’s M.O.

“Entrustment” imbues the proceedings with subtle finality. It treads carefully so as not to hurt those it wishes to protect. This primes a canvas for brushstrokes of every imaginable thickness, each a window into a life that matters. Like the solo piano improvisation, “Augury,” that bathes us along the way, it manifests an internal spirit using external vocabularies, weaving a tapestry of foresight into the pandemic that loomed just beyond the horizon of its recording. Its poignancy finds solidarity throughout Uneasy, which affords a bird’s-eye view of our violent world, a place where even unrest must succumb to slumber. Knowing we cannot stop it alone, prayers like this are a necessity because they remind us that, even as we chant the memories of a select view, 99% of those who met the same fate are names we will never know, swept by the largest of brooms under the asphalt carpet. Let us take the five seconds with which this album starts, then, as an opportunity to reflect on what this music touches: the fragility of identity.

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