Wednesday, October 20, 2010

CD Review: Vijay Iyer - Solo

Vijay Iyer

The Vijay Iyer Trio's 2009 album Historicity will very likely be regarded in future years as one of those albums that cut a new path for piano trios. If not, it should. Perhaps the same could be said about other releases in Iyer's catalog, but everything really seemed to line up on that album: the original pieces; reworkings of songs by Stevie Wonder, MIA and Leonard Bernstein (they played first version of "Somewhere" that didn't sound maudlin to these ears since Tom Waits did it); and most importantly the way Iyer's piano worked so well with Stephan Crump's bass and Marcus Gilmore's drums. Crump especially seemed to astound, using his instrument as a foundation that could also hold water in the realm of countermelodies.

Now the German ACT label has released Iyer's first effort where he goes it alone. A cynic - and I know at least one of them - could regard this album as a way for the hot pianist to win over a more mainstream audience. Solo albums can be easier on the ears and besides, he's frontloaded the album with more covers, starting with Michael Jackson and jumping right into Thelonious Monk, stopping on a standard before dipping into the Duke Ellington book. Four Iyer originals appear midway through the album, with one more closing it after a few more covers.

Well, I'm cynical and after listening to this album numerous times, it's clear that this is no gimmick.

If you play opener "Human Nature" for most people, there is a good chance that they won't associate it with the original, at least not for at first. Iyer begins with some moody sustain that opens up the lyrical qualities of the Thriller ballad. He also casts it in a jerky time signature that sounds like 7/8, but might have a few more alternating beats. This adds to its mysterious quality instead of weirding it up.
That time signature is also part of his take on Monk's theme "Epistrophy." Last year Ravi Coltrane did the same thing with the song. It could be that the half-step riff is a great workout at both rapid tempos and clipped rhythms. Regardless, the flurry of notes never lets up during this track and Iyer maintains a clear line of thought as his hands come close to knotting up as they play (a la Bugs Bunny. Sorry, couldn't shake the image.)

Along with "Darn that Dream" and "Black and Tan Fantasy," Solo includes a piece by Iyer's former leader Steve Coleman. "Games" has a bright melody that brings out the pianist's melodic gifts, which also reveals one of the catalysts (Coleman, that is) who might have shaped Iyer along the way. It's one of the most impressive tracks on the album too.

Of the originals, the four in a row almost act like a suite. They also incorporate disparate piano elements, from Cecil Taylor-like splatters to pensive interludes and some serious riffage. The latter is something that solo performances are susceptible to - noodling on an idea for too long without developing it. "Patterns" builds out of its namesake from an arpeggio to a structure with standard changes, and while the rapid right hand work is fun, it doesn't satisfy as much as the other tracks.

Speaking of which, I've gone through most of them individually, which might be a little excessive but I think it proves how many ideas and approaches Iyer has at a finger's length. Solo really offers an inside view of his brain, and what you see looks pretty good.

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