What’s karmic payback for walking out of a Vijay Iyer show? Losing a recording of the most awestruck, rivetingly beautiful concert of the year, for starters – that, and missing out on most of a performance by this era’s most distinctive and arguably most influential pianist. Vijay, if you’re reading this, don’t take it personally. This blog’s proprietor once walked out on Pauline Oliveros too.
Not that she wasn’t great. It’s just that sometimes the demands of running a blog don’t always coincide with having a life. Saturday night at Merkin Concert Hall, it was at least good to get to see a rapturous, often mesmerizing performance by Pakistani singer and composer Arooj Aftab leading a quartet including pianist Leo Genovese, drummer Jorn Bielfeldt and synth player Yusuke Yamamoto through what seemed to be a largely improvisational suite.
Singing mostly vocalese in a cool, hushed, nuanced mezzo-soprano, Aftab ran her vocals through a series of effects for additional subtlety, adding reverb or looping her phrasing, mostly for the sake of rhythmic shifts. Genovese played the show of his life. Since Aftab’s ghazal-inspired tone poems don’t often shift key and typically eschew western harmony, the pianist assembled an eerily glittering architecture out of passing tones, first bringing to mind Bill Mays playing Angelo Badalamenti’s Twin Peaks themes, then raising the ante to white-knuckle terror in places. Although there was one interlude where Genovese took a long, energetic solo, he held back from going against the current and trying to make postbop out of Aftab’s pensive atmospherics…or taking the easy route and hanging back with open fifths and octaves.
Bielfeldt also played with remarkable and intuitive restraint. Toward the end, he and Genovese exchanged coyly conversational riffs as the music swelled, but otherwise he was all about the lustre. Under these circumstances, having a synth in the band usually spells disaster, but Yamamoto turned out to be a magic ingredient with his deep-space washes of chords and the occasional elegant synth bass riff.
After a roughly forty-minute set, Aftab brought out Iyer for a duo as the encore. It seemed at this point that for a pianist, following Genovese would be just plain cruel, considering how he’d just mined every macabre tonality in the keys and the overtone system. But Iyer went in a more optimistic direction, opting for an approach that was both more hypnotically rhythmic and minimalist, while airing out similar resonance from the overtones. Watching him think on his feet with a much more limited choice of options than usual was rewarding; sticking around for his own set would no doubt have been twice as fun. Iyer is currently on tour; he’ll be back in New York on May 9 leading a sextet through a week at the Vanguard.
The loss of Dave Brubeck left a void the size of an ocean in the world of third stream piano jazz, but thankfully we have others who keep pushing the envelope in that sphere, and one of that style’s finest, most eclectic exponents continues to be Bill Mays. His latest album, Life’s a Movie, with his Inventions Trio (Marvin Stamm on trumpet and Alisa Horn on cello) is a richly tuneful, purposeful collection that bookends a characteristically cinematic Mays suite with fresh takes on old classics.
They open with a quartet of Bill Evans pieces. My Bells gets a matter-of-fact, glistening, all-too-brief take, followed by Interplay, a through-composed/through-improvised blues. Before recording it, Mays said to Horn he wished she could play both the original Jim Hall guitar part along with Percy Heath’s bassline, to which she replied that she could do both at once. And she does – it’s a terse, pulsing treat. simultaneously and she tells him she can. The cello-fueled dirge Turn Out the Stars has Mays edging toward Ran Blake noir under Horn’s mournful austerity. A bittersweet Watz for Debby with balmy flugelhorn above the glimmer concludes the mini-suite.
Mays’ own Life’s a Movie: 4 Cues in Search of a Theme balances a pensive, often poignant narrative with considerable wit, drawing on Mays’ prolific career in film music. The long, expansive Main Title theme is grounded by Horn’s ambered, sustained lines, Stamm’s clear, terse passages and livened with Mays’ increasingly lively leaps and bounds – this isn’t a horror movie. Love Theme Bittersweet is true to its name, beginning as a spacious, starlit, rather avant garde tone poem and then reaching toward an angst-fueled neoromantic swing. A similarly swinging chase scene develops with a surrealistic twelve-tone acidity; the main title is reprised as a genial nocturne that takes on a Brazilian-tinged pulse fueled by Stamm’s animated, spiraling phrases.
They follow a brief, rapt take of Joaquin Rodrigo’s famous Concierto de Aranjuez theme with an upbeat, swinging romp through Chick Corea’s Spain, an apt segue. A trio of familiar Monk classics wraps up the album tersely: Trinkle Tinkle, with some nonchalantly arresting harmonies from the trumpet and cello; a gentle, almost pastoral take of Pannonica; and Straight, No Chaser, Horn offering an affectionately lithe, bluesy nod to Miles Davis. In its own unselfconsciously soulful way, this is one of the best jazz albums of the year.