Hour 14 The Diverse Musical Settings of Vijay Iyer – Solo, Duo, Trio & Sextet

Vijay Iyer

The last decade was one of immense consequence and productivity for pianist/composer Vijay Iyer. In 2012 alone, in the DownBeat International Jazz Critics Poll he was voted Artist of the Year, Pianist of the Year, Small Group of the Year (the Vijay Iyer Trio), Album of the Year (Accelerando), and Rising Star Composer of the Year. Then in 2013, he received the McArthur Fellowship, often called the McArthur Genius Grant. He started the decade recording for Munich based ACT Music and in mid-decade moved across town to ECM. His releases uniformly received critical acclaim as he recorded with a South-Asian trio, then several times with a conventional piano trio, with side trips to solo recordings, string quartets, sublime duos and a surprising three-horn sextet.

In his first recording with ACT Music, 2008’s Tirtha (not released until 2011), Vijay Iyer overtly explored his South Asian roots with an accomplished trio including guitarist/composer Prasanna, and tablaist Nitin Mitta. Their collaboration continually reminds us their common cultural roots, while exploring a compositional and improvisational realm all its own. There is nothing derivative about the result.

Iyer released a series of conventional piano trio records with Stephan Crump on bass and Marcus Gilmore on drums. His first in the series was Historicity in 2009 which showcased both originals and covers, several of which represent the best of the collection. Of their version of Leonard Bernstein’ great ballad, Chris May wrote, “…Somewhere … is pulled and stretched by Iyer’s percussive combination of triple and quadruple time over Crump’s solid, four in the bar, walking bass. A great tune given an irresistible recalibration.”

Rememberance. Vijay Iyer with Prasanna & Nitin Mitta
(Vijay Iyer-p, Prasanna-g/voc & Nitin Mitta-tabla). From Tirtha. ACT Music. 2011.
Somewhere. Vijay Iyer Trio
(Vijay Iyer-p, Stephan Crump-b, Marcus Gilmore-d). From Historicity. ACT Music. 2009.

Vijay Iyer’s 2012 release Accelerando is a masterpiece for the Iyer – Crump – Gilmore Trio, perhaps the highpoint of their collaborations to date. Once again, it features Iyer originals and thoughtful interpretations of the work of other composers, although the latter choices this time are more obscure. He covers a Duke Ellington tune, The Village of the Virgins written for an Alvin Ailey ballet, The River, that debuted in 1970, although Ellington’s recording was unreleased until 1988.

The title tune of the Vijay Iyer Trio’s first ECM release, Break Stuff, is an Iyer original that, to quote John Kelman at AllAboutJazz, is “taken at a breakneck speed … leading to a modal solo section that, following Iyer’s voicing-rich solo, dissolves into a gentler, more ethereal feature for the ever-lyrical [bassist Stephan] Crump…”

The Village of the Virgins. Vijay Iyer Trio
(Vijay Iyer-p, Stephan Crump-b, Marcus Gilmore-d). From Accelerando. ACT Music. 2012.
Break Stuff. Vijay Iyer Trio
(Vijay Iyer-p, Stephan Crump-b, Marcus Gilmore-d). From Break Stuff. ECM. 2015.

Solo and Duo
Recordings for solo piano and various duets have showcased formats in which Vijay Iyer has been comfortable throughout his career. His 2014 release, Mutations, is split between a ten-part suite with string quartet and three solo performances. Collectively the pieces signal a freedom afforded by ECM to move away from overtly “jazz” offerings.

This trend is manifested in duo releases over the next several years. A Cosmic Rhythm with Each Stoke from 2016 combines Iyer’s piano with the trumpet of veteran Wadada Leo Smith, in what Mark Corroto describes as “… music … cloaked with a bittersweet sound of pleasure tinged in a sadness. A beautiful sadness.” Iyer joined with his contemporary Craig Taborn in a rare piano duet release, The Transitory Poems, in 2019.

When We’re Gone. Vijay Iyer solo.
(Vijay Iyer-p). From Mutations. ECM. 2014
Passage. Vijay Iyer – Wadada Leo Smith duo.
(Wadada Leo Smith-tp, Vijay Iyer-p). From A Cosmic Rhythm with Each Stroke. ECM. 2016.
Sensorium. Vijay Iyer – Craig Taborn duo.
(Vijat Iyer-p, Craig Taborn-p). From The Transitory Poems. ECM. 2019

While his work of the previous decade has been primarily in small ensembles (trios and duos) or solo, in 2017, Vijay Iyer released Far From Over by a sextet that featured serial collaborators Tyshawn Sorey on percussion, Stephan Crump on bass and Steve Lehman on alto plus Graham Haynes on cornet and Mark Shim on tenor.

Far From Over. Vijay Iyer Sextet
(Graham Haynes-cor/flh. Steve Lehman-as, Mark Shim-ts, Vijay Iyer-p, Stephan Crump-b, Tyshawn Sorey-d). From Far From Over. ECM. 2017
Nope. Vijay Iyer Sextet
(Graham Haynes-cor/flh. Steve Lehman-as, Mark Shim-ts, Vijay Iyer-p, Stephan Crump-b, Tyshawn Sorey-d). From Far From Over. ECM. 2017

While Vijay Iyer has been a respected player on the scene since his debut in 1995, the past decade has provided evidence of a major contributor as a pianist, a band leader and a composer. His work has garnered virtually every major accolade available to jazz musicians while illustrating a musical restlessness that promises more surprises to come.

Turner, Mark F. (2011, March 18). AllAboutJazz. Vijay Iyer: Tirtha. https://www.allaboutjazz.com/tirtha-vijay-iyer-act-music-review-by-mark-f-turner.php?width=1440

May, Chris. (2009, October 9). AllAboutJazz. Vijay Iyer Trio: Historicity. https://www.allaboutjazz.com/historicity-vijay-iyer-act-music-review-by-chris-may.php

Collins, Troy. (2012, March 8). AllAboutJazz. Vijay Iyer Trio: Accelerando. https://www.allaboutjazz.com/accelerando-vijay-iyer-act-music-review-by-troy-collins.php?width=1440

Kelman, John. (2014, March 10). AllAboutJazz. Vijay Iyer: Mutations. https://www.allaboutjazz.com/vijay-iyer-mutations-by-john-kelman.php?width=1440

Kelman, John. (2015, February 5). AllAbout Jazz. Vijay Iyer Trio: Break Stuff. https://www.allaboutjazz.com/vijay-iyer-trio-break-stuff-by-john-kelman.php?width=1440

Corroto, Mark. (2016, March 6). AllAboutJazz. Vijay Iyer & Wadada Leo Smith: A Cosmic Rhythm With Each Stroke. https://www.allaboutjazz.com/a-cosmic-rhythm-with-each-stroke-vijay-iyer-and-wadada-leo-smith-ecm-records-review-by-mark-corroto.php

Ackerman, Karl. (2017, August 13). AllAboutJazz. Vijay Iyer Sextet: Far From Over. https://www.allaboutjazz.com/far-from-over-vijay-iyer-ecm-records-review-by-karl-ackermann.php

Jurkovic, Mike. (2017, September 8). AllAboutJazz. Vijay Iyer: Far From Over. https://www.allaboutjazz.com/far-from-over-vijay-iyer-ecm-records-review-by-mike-jurkovic.php?width=1440

McClenaghan, Dan. (2019, March 7). AllAboutJazz. Vijay Iyer And Craig Taborn: The Transitory Poems. https://www.allaboutjazz.com/the-transitory-poems-vijay-iyer-and-craig-taborn-ecm-records-review-by-dan-mcclenaghan.php

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