Through its seductive combination of judicious song interpretations, thrilling playing and confounding rhythmic trickery, pianist Vijay Iyer’s astonishing trio has been bringing challenging music underpinned by complex theory to an ever increasing audience. When the group last performed in London, they played two shows at the intimate Vortex jazz club.
On this occasion, their commanding presence holds the Purcell Room, a room more used to solo piano and chamber music performances, in spellbound rapture for over two hours. Iyer has never compromised the concepts and ethos behind his music in search of a wider audience – but something has clearly clicked in terms of the way he has delivered it.
In a set drawing heavily from last year’s highly accomplished Accelerando album, Iyer, bassist Stephen Crump and drummer Marcus Gilmore sustained a frightening level of intensity without an interval or a support set. If this outstanding performance had any flaws at all, it might demonstrate that perhaps it is possible to have too much of a good thing. for a while, about three quarters of the way into the set, the energy levels and commitment of the musicians felt almost overwhelming.
At just 25 years of age (he began working with Iyer at the tender age of 16), Gilmore is something of a prodigy, his restless, turbulent and provocative playing also coming with fearsome accuracy and precision. Being the grandson of Roy Haynes, perhaps jazz’s greatest living drummer, certainly must have provided something of a headstart, although Gilmore’s polyrhythmic, multi-textured approach is very different from Haynes’ melody-centred style. His obligatory explosive solo at the culmination of the set is remarkable. Crump is an authoritative, powerful bass player with a resonant, attacking sound and an economical and thoughtful approach to improvisation.
There is an inevitable uncertainty amongst the audience as to whether, or perhaps where, to applaud for individual solos. This is partly because of the complex time signatures and structural features of these compositions. But there is another, deeper reason too. This is an ensemble that subsumes individual virtuosity within the integration and interaction of the whole. All are refined, highly skilled musicians, able to handle complex material and willing to take risks. A large portion of the improvising feels like a unified experiment, with all three band members working simultaneously. This band now has a deep, informed and symbiotic relationship which comes across clearly.
Some may find Iyer’s music overly intellectual – a search for perfection and formal beauty that removes any sense of soul or emotion (Iyer is certainly informed by a lineage of conceptual jazz composers that includes Henry Threadgill). This limiting perspective may say more about the band’s detractors than it does about the musicians, however, because the music performed tonight is actually daring, multi-faceted, playful and exciting. Dismissing the music as ‘maths jazz’ misses the feeling of pure enjoyment and adventure at its core. It’s there in the methodical interweaving of rhythms during Lude and their interpretation of Heatwave’s Star Of A Story. Perhaps it’s there to a near self-parodic extent in the skittering version of Michael Jackson’s Human Nature, delivered in what feels initially like an African triplet feel, but is actually offset by an uneven extra beat.
There is also a more rapturous side to Iyer’s playing too – evident in the opening Bode, at once lush and menacing. This is also present in the brief but exhilarating deconstructionist solo interpretation of Darn That Dream, one of the jazz repertoire’s most beautiful and enduring standards. Most intriguingly, the trio take on Abundance, an Iyer original from his Tirtha project, a moment of graceful mystery and considered reflection that is most welcome amidst the ceaseless motion and jagged edges of the rest of the set. Iyer seems aware of his own high-minded seriousness, wryly including himself in the band introductions (over a groove, naturally) as ‘yours truly, Vijay Iyer’. He apologetically claims that the band don’t get to appear in the UK often enough – but there can be little doubt that the profile of their shows here will only continue to grow.