Vijay Iyer: Uneasy (ECM 2692)

Vijay Iyer

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.

Vijay Iyer/Craig Taborn: The Transitory Poems (ECM 2644)

The Transitory Poems

The Transitory Poems

Vijay Iyer piano
Craig Taborn piano
Recorded live March 12, 2018
at the concert hall of the Franz Liszt Academy of Music, Budapest
Engineer: Stefano Amerio
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: March 15, 2019

The duo of pianists Vijay Iyer and Craig Taborn, documented on this March 2018 live recording at Budapest’s Franz Liszt Academy of Music, came out of an involvement in Roscoe Mitchell’s Note Factory. In that context they balanced prewritten knotwork with improvisational unraveling and acted as likeminded catalysts for spontaneous composition.

The opening “Life Line (Seven Tensions)” bears an appropriate subtitle, which, by gentle force of suggestion, allows one to imagine the physiological give and take required to bring this music to fruition. Interplays between passages of both intense abstraction and synchronicity feel as much indicative of where Iyer and Taborn came from as where they are going. With actorly sense of space they mold the stage as inspirational substance. They move as if stationary, posing as if never settling for one meaning.

Iyer Taborn
(Photo credit: Monica Jane Frisell)

Although subsequent tracks have their distinctions, as a whole they form an album of immense coherence. This didn’t stop the musicians from hearing much of what they rendered as impromptu panegyrics for legends lost that same year. “Sensorium,” for Jack Whitten, evokes the artist’s complex inner worlds and fractal obsessions; “Clear Monolith,” for Muhal Richard Abrams, allows light to pass through its latticed notes; and “Luminous Brew,” for Cecil Taylor, boils highs and lows over a campfire until their ingredients are indistinguishable. But nowhere is the feeling of dedication so palpable as in Geri Allen’s “When Kabuya Dances,” which crystallizes themes hinted at in a preceding improvisation and leaves listeners suspended far above where they started.

Beyond assertions of technical skill, Iyer and Taborn are purveyors of the metaphysical, listening more than making. Whether in sporadic (“Kairòs”) or rhythmically-driven (“Shake Down”) dialects, they speak in a supremely translatable language. This, if anything, is what makes these transitory poems more than freely made: rather, they’re made free.

(This article originally appeared in the July 2019 issue of The New York City Jazz Record, a full PDF of which is available for download here.)

Vijay Iyer/Wadada Leo Smith: a cosmic rhythm with each stroke (ECM 2486)


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a cosmic rhythm with each stroke

Vijay Iyer piano, Fender Rhodes, electronics
Wadada Leo Smith trumpet
Recorded October 2015 at Avatar Studios, New York
Engineer: James A. Farber
Assistant: Akihiro Nishimura
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: March 11, 2016

Labyrinths, lines among lines – A mesh
Difficult to destroy
Yet one must
Nothing more
Out of chaos, form – silence
–Nasreen Mohamedi, diary entry, 1968

That pianist Vijay Iyer looks up to Wadada Leo Smith as a “hero, friend, and teacher” is nowhere so beautifully obvious as on this, their first duo record. He recalls his five years spent with the trumpeter’s Golden Quartet, in which he and Smith “became a unit within the unit generating spontaneous duo episodes as formal links.” Said balance of spontaneity and form accurately describes an artistic process that adds as many layers as it peels away.

The seven-part a cosmic rhythm with each stroke came about in response to Indian artist Nasreen Mohamedi (1937-1990), whose diary yields every title therein. “All becomes alive” introduces electronic augury as spinal tap, while Smith’s castings reveal a divination that feels simultaneously digital and analog. There’s tension here, but it has no teeth to masticate Iyer’s block chords. Instead, it marvels at its own narrative unfolding, one word at a time. These dynamics fluctuate all the way to “Notes on water,” in which synthesized elements bring the suite to its origami conclusion. Along every crease in between—whether through the muted proclamations of “The empty mind receives,” the frenetic grammars of “Labyrinths” and “A cold fire,” or the ambient depths of “A divine courage”—we encounter a biographical fingerprint. The forensic tools required to piece these together into a coherent identity are as much drawn from the listeners as the performers.

Iyer Smith
(Photo credit: John Rogers)

Their investigation is bookended by two outlying compositions. Iyer’s “Passage” refuses to see either palette or canvas as flat surfaces, emphasizing instead their three-dimensionality and capacity for absorption. What begins as a delicate, John Cagean landscape morphs into a bolder ode to time and space. If Iyer’s pianism speaks in acrylics, then Smith’s trumpeting revels in the split tails of calligraphic brushstrokes, reading between their lines a language of metonymic potency. Smith’s “Marian Anderson,” dedicated to the contralto and civil rights activist of the same name, fits together broader temporal scaffolding upon a likeminded foundation. The end effect rolls itself into a seed of origins, ready to sprout at the slightest contact of our listening water.

Vijay Iyer Sextet: Far From Over (ECM 2581)

Far From Over

Vijay Iyer Sextet
Far From Over

Graham Haynes cornet, flugelhorn, electronics
Steve Lehman alto saxophone
Mark Shim tenor saxophone
Vijay Iyer piano, Fender Rhodes
Stephan Crump double bass
Tyshawn Sorey drums
Recorded April 2017 at Avatar Studios, New York
Engineer: James A. Farber
Assistant: Nate Odden
Mixed May 2017 by Farber, Eicher, and Iyer
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Vijay Iyer’s fifth record for ECM is the pianist’s most engaging yet. Over ten scenes, Iyer directs an original storyline with his freshly-cut diamond of a sextet. Graham Haynes (cornet, flugelhorn, electronics), Steve Lehman (alto), Mark Shim (tenor), Stephan Crump (bass) and Tyshawn Sorey (drums) are not only actors playing multiple roles; they’re also real-time producers, editors and sound designers.

“Poles” and “Threnody” provide opening and closing credits. Both nurture storms of activity from raindrops, as if celebrating the end of a draught. They also balance the mutual extremes of locking and unlocking. In the latter vein, the leading horns take turns in “Down To The Wire” and in the title track, revealing the underlying irregularities that make this music so exciting. Like oranges, Haynes, Lehman and Shim’s solos are at the peak of flavor when juiced. No wonder, when their bandleader has given them so much soil and sunshine in which to ripen.

Iyer’s clairvoyance smiles across the delightful “Nope,” breathes to fullest capacity throughout “Into Action” and expands on South Indian beats in “Good On The Ground.” The latter two are masterstrokes—thematically and in execution. The rhythm section understands that being sportive can be serious and Sorey digs especially deep. Haynes also has his monologues in “End Of The Tunnel” and “Wake,” both of which work in the cerebral tendrils of his electronics.

Far From Over is a call to listening. More importantly, it’s listening to a call, as most evident in “For Amiri Baraka.” Here the core trio of Iyer, Crump and Sorey teaches the hard lesson shrouded by all this enjoyment. Baraka himself said it best: “There cannot be any apprenticeship for freedom.” Jazz may be heard as a genre of emancipation, but Iyer understands that freedom is illusory until actualized, that communal action is the embodiment of humanity’s reach for its flame and that music is one way to keep us from getting burned in the process.

(This review originally appeared in the October 2017 issue of The New York City Jazz Record, a full PDF of which is available here.)

Prashant Bhargava & Vijay Iyer: Radhe Radhe – Rites of Holi (ECM 5507)

Radhe Radhe

Radhe Radhe: Rites of Holi

Vijay Iyer composer
Prashant Bhargava film director, editor
Anna George actor
Craig Marsden director of photography
International Contemporary Ensemble
Eric LambLaura Jordan Cocks: flute, alto flute, piccolo
Joshua Rubin: clarinet, bass clarinet
Rebekah Heller: basoon, contrabasoon
Gareth FlowersAmir Elsaffar: trumpet
Jennifer Curtis: violin
Kyle Armbrust: viola
Kivie Cahn-Lipman: cello
Cory Smythe: piano
Ross Karre: percussion
Tyshawn Sorey: percussion, drum set
Adam Sliwinski: conductor
Vijay Iyer: piano, electronics
Soundtrack produced by Vijay Iyer and Manfred Eicher.
Recorded live at Memorial Hall, UNC Chapel Hill, March 26, 2013
Engineer: Frank Martin/Media Production Associates
Live concert sound engineer: Levy Lorenzo
Additional recording at The Bunker Studio, April 20, 2014
Engineer: John Davis
Mixed at Avatar Studios, NYC by James Farber, Vijay Iyer, and Manfred Eicher
Assistant: Aki Nishimura
Additional engineering, editing, and consultation: Liberty Ellman


Ron Fricke’s 1992 classic Baraka endures as one of the most consummate examples of non-narrative cinema. Its montage of images from around the world was even more eclectic than the soundtrack that went along with it. But despite the many ceremonies, creative arts, and labors that Fricke documented—including death pyres and ritual baths in the river Ganges—he never captured the Hindu religious festival known as Holi. Had he done so, it might have looked something like Radhe Radhe.

Opening Shot

Filmmaker Prashant Bhargava’s ode to this so-called “festival of colors” traces the eight-day celebration back to Mathura, mythic birthplace of the supreme deity Krishna and his lover (in the strongest sense) Radha. Hence the film’s title, a term of praise and greeting often exchanged in the streets of Mathura, where she is believed to be a gateway to true understanding of Krishna. Her power is a central theme, an explosion of devotion far more vivid than the human-made pigment sold on the streets in the weeks leading up to this cathartic event.

Given the film’s subtitle, “Rites of Holi,” and the fact that Holi is practiced in the spring may put one in mind of Igor Stravinsky. This is no coincidence. Although not a direct homage to Stravinsky, Radhe Radhe was the result of a commission for the 100th anniversary of the Russian composer’s Rite of Spring, and one of a dozen projects freshly created in its honor. It is still a ballet of sorts, not least of all for the dialogic contributions of Indian-American pianist Vijay Iyer. In a manner of speaking, he and Bhargava met halfway—the director boiling down over 30 hours of footage into a 35-minute film and the composer expanding molecular impressions into a fully integrated score—so that the finished product was a narrative duly rendered. Iyer’s task was to match Bhargava’s rhythms, taking the listener through what he calls a “series of energies.”

Crowd 3

Bhargava first gained international attention with his debut feature Patang (The Kite) in 2011. That his roots grabbed their soil in hip-hop and graffiti art should come as no surprise, for his gifts of rhythm, poetry, and color were likeminded in their urban respect. But with Radhe Radhe he went further underground, mining deeper traditions of those same creative registers. The film is, then, as much a musical as it is a visual tour de force, building like a raga to near-ecstatic heights. Indeed, before a single image graces our retinas, Iyer’s pianism sets the stage over a dark title screen. Slight dissonances therein betray something of the chaos about to unfold, but obscure enough of it so that we might experience it anew, even in multiple viewings. Along with the young musicians of the International Contemporary Ensemble, Iyer creates a mood that is beautifully unsettling, and all the more organic for it.

Face 1

The film’s first part, “Adoration,” builds its intimacies one stratum at a time. The stage is set in a misty landscape. We see only details: boatmen preparing for the days’ revelry, a bare back, a glimpse of braided hair. The streets then come to life as food vendors ready their meals and women wash their garments in the river. The soundtrack is restless, anticipatory. A cargo train passes by, as if to underscore the film’s narrative drive. More fragments: a face half-reflected in a mirror, candles burning on an altar, a gossamer veil. As crowds thicken and the dance begins, Iyer’s pianism brightens. Even the birds in the field seem to join in. Flute and brass contrast one another with purpose. Their notes flower and wither, changing focus like the lens that guides them. Strings and percussion add color streamers of their own as the iconic powder hits the air.

Crowd 2

Part 2, “Transcendence,” puts further emphasis on Bhargava’s footage of an imaginary Radha played by actress Anna George. He spins from these scenes, shot in the US and woven throughout the film, a primal and sexual interplay that signals the true emergence of spring. It’s a bold move, as the director himself is first to admit in the DVD’s “Making Of” segment, but he wanted to bring that “everyday magic, that intimacy that we share as people to the narratives of the gods.” He believes that the push and pull of Radha and Krishna exists in all of us, as it does also in the increasingly inseparable relationship between sounds and scenarios. A trumpet, for example, works its melodic overlay during a long shot of Radha’s face, implying an environment far vaster than the immediate contrivance of the studio.

Radha 2

As the cinematography becomes more contemplative, the music subdues itself in solidarity. In the same way that Bhargava seems to have eyes in many places at once and flits between them by changing cognitive channels, so too does Iyer’s complementary switching take every movement into account. A sensual flowering of street noise enters the mix, as if bleeding of its own volition, leaving us wanting to shed our inhibitions and dive into that sea of color.

Dancing 2

In May of 2015, Bhargava died at the age of 42 from cardiac arrest after a history of heart disease. But the tragedy of this death is so graciously balanced by the exuberance of his small yet vivid oeuvre that one can focus on the latter in a state of pure invigoration. In this respect, we do well to read Radhe Radhe in the spirit for which it was made. In a world where the rites of Holi have spread to unlikely corners (I witness its rainbowed aftereffects on my American university campus every year), it’s nice to know that one artist’s vision can bring us anytime to the source with just the press of a PLAY button.


(See this article as it originally appeared in RootsWorld online magazine here.)

Vijay Iyer Trio: Break Stuff (ECM 2420)

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Vijay Iyer Trio
Break Stuff

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.)

Vijay Iyer: Mutations (ECM 2372)


Vijay Iyer

Vijay Iyer piano, electronics
Miranda Cuckson violin
Michi Wiancko violin
Kyle Armbrust viola
Kivie Cahn-Lipman violoncello
Recorded September 2013 at Avatar Studios, New York
Engineer: James A. Farber
Assistant: Tim Marchiafava
Produced by Manfred Eicher

In a brief liner note, MacArthur-winning pianist and composer Vijay Iyer defines the title of his ECM debut as “the noise in our genes.” The eponymous decalogue for piano, string quartet and electronics puts this theory into sonic practice with such organicity that fans and newcomers alike will find this laboratory to be a fascinating place in which to marvel at every biological compound. Having studied violin for 15 years, Iyer is anything but a stranger to the sounds of the string quartet, and so inclusion of that reduced orchestra is as timely as the gestures encoded into his score. Although one might read any number of influences into the piece (Terry Riley comes immediately to mind in the introductory movement, “Air,” and in the third, “Canon”), Iyer’s sound-world is very much its own ecosystem, where the randomness of sprouting leaves is just as vital as, and exists as an expression of, the roots that feed them. Subtitles thus reflect more the physical than emotional structure of individual movements. Some are more overt. “Rise,” for instance, consists of a rising tone that falls in on itself at the insistence of sirens and has its partner in the penultimate “Descent,” while small bursts of mechanical activity throughout “Automata” identify its clockwork soul behind the tasteful electronic appliqué. This is the key tone of the emerging landscape, drawn in the hue of dusk. Other portions are less obvious, such as “Chain,” which creates a feeling of linkage by the notes not played. Three distinct forces—the click track, piano, and strings—achieve remarkable unity here. From the concentrated (“Kernel”) to the frenetic (“Clade”), and even to the docked-boat knocking of “Time,” which closes out, the feeling is always one of fractals: the closer you get, the more detail is revealed. This might very well serve to describe Iyer’s entire output so far.

At the periphery of this program the listener will find three solo piano works that are anything but peripheral. Spellbound and Sacrosanct, Cowrie Shells and the Shimmering Sea, as the initiatory phase of both the album and a hopefully longstanding relationship with ECM, speaks with Iyer’s characteristic attention to detail. Contrasting pedaled sustains and shallower drops, he displays an unusual awareness of the piano’s timbral capabilities. In other words, he infuses the piano with a deeper knowledge of itself. He achieves this with no small effort of restraint, lest his territories become too ephemeral to grasp. The final two pieces factor electronics into the equation. Vuln, Part 2 emerges from an astutely urban palette. Augmented by a muffled bass beat, like that of trunk-mounted subwoofers as heard from a neighboring street, serves not as a rhythmic guide but as a reminder of the regularity and therefore fallibility of abstraction. Iyer illustrates that even the most fleeting movements of body and mind are driven by impulses that, when seen from far enough away, become regular and may even disappear. The piano’s beauties, then, exist only to be sworn to secrecy. When We’re Gone is the coda, and as such is trained to open two doors for each one closed. In its starker expansion of time, reflections of mortality tremble like icicles desirous of melting. So do we end as we began: at that indefinable edge between formation and destruction.

(To hear samples of Mutations, you may watch the EPK above or click here.)