Monday, May 02, 2011

Vijay Iyer takes Pittsburgh

Vijay Iyer came to the Manchester Craftsmen's Guild last Friday and after his first show, I felt like I was ready to start a religion around the guy. That sounds a little extreme, but his performance was really that good, especially in light of the fact that, during his second show, he was playing on a piano with a broken string, giving the E-flat a certain buzz like a gamelan.

Traffic was absolutely ridiculous on the way to the North Side and we didn't get there until close to 7:30, half an hour after the first act started playing. (I found out later, all the back-ups were attributed to the NRA convention, a show at Stage AE and the general detours from the 31st Street Bridge closing). That was alright because the first group was fairly lightweight. Not bad musicians by any means but they were all about respect for the canon with little about putting forth an individual voice, except for the tenor player.

Iyer, on the other hand, had one of those magical touches that spoke legions with the way he played the first three notes, all very thoughtful and pensive. (He once wrote an essay for The Wire about a three-note combination that Cecil Taylor often used that sounded perfect in its simplicity. Methinks Iyer must have picked up on that idea.) He opened with "Helix" that begins sounding very wide open. Bassist Stephen Crump sounds very powerful on disc, so it was kind of off-putting at first to see his whole body really shake with every gentle note he played. It was the total opposite of what you expect from that sound. Usually a musician moves like that to make up for the lack of creativity in their playing. Not Crump. This adds to his playing. Marcus Gilmore also began in a unique way, playing with a brush in one hand and a mallet in the other. Throughout the night, he dropped a couple of sticks, but it didn't spoil the quality of his performance. In fact, he played with one stick for about two minutes in "Somewhere."

The second song sounded like a funk tune, and Iyer started playing reggae dub echo effects with the way he hit the notes. Yes, he was recreating a studio trick in real time. Ironically, this slice of funk and dub was a Bud Powell tune, "Coming Up."

One of the most impressive things about the group was how they could take an idea and build on it, even if it was simple progression of just a chord or two, and they developed in ways that didn't seem to rely on typical methods, like simply shifting dynamics or riffing. In fact, as far as riffing goes, they often seemed to get wobbly in terms of where the beats fell - but never in a way that put the music in danger of falling apart. Time was really elastic for them. Then it hit me that this might've been something that Iyer picked up from Steve Coleman, who really has played with ideas and approaches to rhythm.

The second show opened with that buzzing from the broken string and that set things in the direction of adventure. The opening piece began very freely with some wild bowed bass and flowing movement from the trio. Iyer also mixed up the set list a great deal, instead of just repeating what he played in the first show. They played a moving version of "Abundance," which he recorded with another group (guitarist Prasanna and tablaist Nitin Mitta on Tirtha), as well as Michael Jackson's "Human Nature," which he recorded on Solo last year, and which really went all over the place, he later explained, because of the string problem.

I was also happy to hear Andrew Hill's "Smoke Stack" another tune from Historicity because Iyer played the theme so rapidly and because the piano gets a little lost in the original since Hill used two bass players at that session, which made it a little muddled.

The second show didn't wrap up until about midnight, or a little after. I went home exhaused that night. Happy, but beat.

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