Sunday, August 20, 2017

CD Review: Vijay Iyer Sextet - Far From Over

Vijay Iyer Sextet
Far From Over

Running order.

Once upon a time, it was an element of an album that was taken for granted. Songs (tracks, or tunes, if you rather) were placed in certain spots on an album for dynamic effect. A term even existed for the tracks mid-way through the side of a record that gave the listener a jolt to maintain their interest. They were called tent songs. It made perfect sense and was such a revelation to these ears because, without knowing the lingo, I noticed that happening on my band's first album. Aside from that, running order creates a "wow" factor, or in some cases a "yeah" or "damn right" factor. Think of the energy at the end of "Good Morning Good Morning" and the way it leaps into the upbeat drive of the "Sergeant Pepper" reprise. Or, on the same album, the way "Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite" wipes away the melancholia of "She's Leaving Home," going on some new wild trip in the process.

The significance of a running order isn't dead but it's not as valued as it once was, at least to consumers. Technology allows us to overlook, or completely miss, the relationships between tracks. This thought was driven home recently when a friend talked about buying albums online, lamenting how this act often requires one to purchase the album's lackluster songs along with the good ones. I shook my head. Once upon a time, there was no choice. Everything came together and while some songs might not initially stack up against the best tracks, they might come alive with repeated listens. (This brings up the whole wrongheaded issue of deciding immediately whether a song is good or not, which is a whole other can of worms.)

Far From Over, for which Vijay Iyer expanded his trio to a sextet of A-list associates, flows with a dynamic running order, which emphasizes the contours of his writing, the changes in mood and the way his group digs into all of it. Bassist Stephan Crump is aboard, but instead of longtime drummer Marcus Gilmore, Tyshawn Sorey sits behind the kit this time. Alto saxophonist Steve Lehman, the third piece of the Fieldwork trio with Sorey and Iyer, is also on board. Graham Haynes (trumpet, electronics) and Mark Shim (tenor saxophone) complete the group.

Iyer can create suspense with the gentlest opening notes, which happens with "Poles." The track is one of those that requires several volume knob adjustments as it takes shape. The horns move together but gradually spread out over the beat, in much the same way the Iyer trio has toyed with the idea of groove. Things get a bit fierce during Lehman's solo, while Haynes calms down during his, and where Iyer shifts to Fender Rhodes. Rather than returning with the whole group, they end on this intriguing mood.

Haynes and Iyer work closely on two tracks that almost act interludes between the more complex pieces. "End of the Tunnel" and "Wake," which both include Haynes using echo effects on his horn, recall the spacier moments 1970s Miles Davis. In the former, Haynes does evoke the title, while Iyer's Rhodes resides at the front of the tunnel. Both are tracks relatively brief, but "Wake" sounds like it could have evolved into a longer piece, as Crump and Sorey both add color. But even at 4:47, it presents more intrigue that satisfies.

"End of the Tunnel" also acts as the thoughtful break between the laidback funk of "Nope" (listen on earbuds to appreciate the way Sorey is panned between the channels) and "Down to the Wire," where Iyer combines rapid piano figures and some taut rhythms, driven by Sorey. The pianist sounds like he could explode into a visceral attack at any moment, but he keeps things calm but complex. During Sorey's solo, all four limbs work freely,  in a manner that sounds totally in keeping with what preceded him in the song.

Iyer called some of these tracks "fiendishly difficult" and it can be felt throughout the album. After the maniacal theme of "Good On the Ground," before Shim digs into his solo, there's quick open spot which almost feels like a collective sigh of relief - or triumph really - that the septet made it that far. "In Action" also contrasts a funk backbeat with horn lines falling in odd places, in a manner that recalls Iyer's days with Steve Coleman.

But along with the complexity there are moments of beauty, like "For Amiri Baraka" a tranquil piano trio piece. This too comes between "Down to the Wire" and "In Action," another perceptive choice for the running order. "Threnody" begins gently with just the piano trio, eventually bringing in Lehman for a performance that builds in intensity, bringing the album to a passionate close.

Vijay Iyer has proven himself over the last few years to be a creative composer and performer, not easy to summarize easily. His work has received recognition too, which isn't always the case for artists like him. That being said Far From Over represents that strongest set of material in his catalog so far. While 2009's Historicity has been my favorite of his albums (combining his own work with interpretations ranging from Andrew Hill to MIA and others), this all original set presents a greater perspective of thecreative forces at work in his head.

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