Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Transcendence and Turbulence with the Vijay Iyer Sextet at the Vanguard

Pianist Vijay Iyer and his sextet’s sold-out opening set of a weeklong stand at the Vanguard last night was an energetic yet saturnine suite – or a darkly glimmering jazz sonata. Iyer is not an ostentatious pianist: he makes his point, has some fun and then gets out, just like Thelonious Monk and Ellington before him would do. It’s a little early to enshrine Iyer alongside those two, but the esthetic is the same. His band provided alternately blustery and plaintive intensity throughout well over an hour and a half onstage. He’s back at the Vanguard tonight, July 17 through the 21st, with sets at 8:30 and around 10; cover is $35.

Other than band introductions, Iyer barely spoke to the audience, beyond asserting that he and the band stand against Trump’s bigotry and white supremacy, encouraging the crowd to keep fighting, since “The fight is far from over.” That’s the title of Iyer’s album with this crew, and he reminded everybody that it’s just as true today as when he released it back in 2017.

His gritty, sometimes grim modal focus contrasted with the turbulence of the horns. Tenor player Mark Shim began and ended the night crossing simmering, smoky terrain; in between, he soared and spiraled and chuffed in tandem with drummer Jeremy Dutton, the group’s junior member. A constantly recurring trope, the pairings of individual horns with  the full rhythm section, contrasted with Iyer’s relentlessness, sharply focused rhythm and hard-edged, often distantly latin-inflected melodicism.

Alto saxophonist Steve Lehman built increasingly complex layers of hardbop, bouncing and even pogoing in place while Dutton distingushed himself as a connoisseur of New Orleans funk grooves. Graham Haynes played mournful wide-angle flugelhorn, switching to cornet for his more kinetic moments. Bassist Stephan Crump pulsed in tandem with Iyer, or, in one of the night’s most rapturous interludes, bowed sepulchral midrange wisps against the bandleader’s eerie belltone variations.

It was a night of innumerable transcendent moments, immersed in the sobering context of the here and now, where we have a bridge-and-tunnel ranter in the Oval Office whose hysterical antics only obscure the ongoing unraveling of the Constitution. The most rapturous of those musical moments was when Iyer worked extreme lows against extreme highs while Haynes built a shivery, Twin Peaks microtonal interlude on his flugelhorn. Likewise, Iyer’s clever shifts from refusenik low-register pedalpoint to increasingly tense, stabbing close harmonies while the horns blew clouds of steam. Every number segued into an other, Iyer seamlessly bridging the chasms between hard-swinging funk and distantly sinister majesty. As the pianist intimated, there’s no telling where the next set is going to go: they’re all different. And yet, they’ll all have singalong (or at least humalong) tunefulness balancing a persistent unease. No wonder the guy’s so popular.

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July 17, 2019 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Vijay Iyer Brings His Dark, Breathtaking, Richly Tuneful Power to Downtown Brooklyn Friday Night

Vijay Iyer’s work with small groups over the past year or so has been transcendent. This era’s cognoscenti’s pick as the world’s best jazz pianist put out one of the most rapturously soulful, understatedly intense albums of 2016, A Cosmic Rhythm With Each Stroke, with trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith. Iyer’s riveting, haunting trio score to a Teju Cole video program with  bassist Linda May Han Oh and vibraphonist Patricia Brennan at National Sawdust this past summer is just one more example of the kind of intimate lyricism he’s been fixated on lately. His latest album. Far From Over, with his long-running trio, bassist Stephan Crump and drummer Tyshawn Sorey is expanded to a sextet with Graham Haynes on cornet and flugelhorn, Steve Lehman on alto sax and Mark Shim on tenor. It’s a typically translucent, often wickedly catchy and very dark in places, a vivid reflection of troubled times. Some but not all of it has made it to youtube.

Iyer and the group are playing night two of this year’s Bric Jazz Festival on Oct 20 at around 11:30 PM at Bric Arts, 647 Fulton St. at Rockwell Place in downtown Brooklyn. The night is a mixed bag of allstars and duds: the allstars, in reverse order, include headlining violinist Regina Carter reinventing Ella Fitzgerald tunes, trumpeter Dave Douglas “Meets the Westerlies,” latin jazz trombonist Papo Vazquez‘s Mighty Pirate Troubadours, haunting Puerto Rican bolero revivalists and Sylvia Rexach interpreters Miramar, and drummer LaFrae Sci + the Groove. $25 advance tix are still available as of today. The auditorium is about equidistant from the 2/3 at Hoyt St. and the G at Fulton St., otherwise, it’s a short walk from the Atlantic Ave. station.

The first track is full of surprises. Iyer gives it a moodily crystalline intro, followed by a vampy, funky Steve Coleman-ish strut that recedes for meandering microtonalisms from Lehman and then a poignant flugelhorn statement from Haynes. By that point, Iyer has switched to Rhodes; the broodingly intertwining coda brings it full circle.

The title track opens with deliciously bustling, noir-tinged, Mingus-esque drama and low, burnished horns, whose round-robin of solos quickly introduces an unstoppable detective squad as Iyer glistens and churns with the bass and drums below before dancing on a wire with some moodily rich modalitiies. Sorey’s offhandedly savage cymbal splash at the end kills it perfectly.

Nope is a punchy, funky Rhodes tune with chattering, New Orleans-tinged horns and a droll Iyer solo on piano at the center. Hayes’ psychedelic, electronically warped oscillations mingle with Iyer’s eerily starry Rhodes in End of the Tunnel, a miniature that recalls Bob Belden’s creepily futuristic late work. Iyer builds out of leapfrogging, uneasily altered minor-key blues as Down to the Wire picks up steam, Shim adding a purposefully scampering solo over the rhythm section’s long, aching upward drive, Sorey’s solo a panther across the parade grounds before the final bristling coda.

For Amiri Baraka, a piano trio piece, opens as a spare, wistful dirge and then moves toward outright wrath: if there’s any Halloweenish track here, it’s this one – although the funky, driving  Into Action has a similarly ominous, modal intensity that backs away a bit for an unexpectedly balmy turn by Haynes. Iyer’s subtle shift from blithe music-box twinkle to Bill Mays Twin Peaks menace is the album’s most artful moment. Then Iyer moves back and forth between piano and Rhodes in Wake, a grimly atmospheric piece of Beldenesque cinematics.

Clenched-teeth piano chromatics and gritty low horns propel Good on the Ground up to a fleeting bhangra riff. Shim and Iyer punch at the shadows together up to an Iyer solo that’s vintage Keith Jarrett on steroids, then they bring back the bhangra. As the closing cut, Threnody gets underway, Iyer shifts sagely from calm reflection to a stern, elegaic, Messiaenic belltone pulse. A lot of people are going to call this this best jazz album of 2017 – check back here in December to see where it lands on the best-of lists.

October 16, 2017 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Vijay Iyer’s Accelerando from a Distance

Why cover Vijay Iyer’s Accelerando now, in the wake of all the acclaim, the unprecedented sweep of the Downbeat critics’ poll, ad infinitum? For one, to assess how much of the hype is justified. And from a blogger’s perspective, it never hurts to step out of the magic, secret corners that we and sometimes we alone seem to know about, and venture out into the so-called mainstream to lure traffic off the wider expanses of the world wide web into those magic, secret corners. So consider this both a ploy and an unvarnished attempt to make sense of Iyer’s soaring popularity.

Which is well-deserved. Let’s get the punchline out of the way: he has a rare gift for melody as well as a fearlessness that extends from the political to his choice of material. Iyer will literally cover anything. Yet as much as has been written about how he’s bringing cutting-edge concepts into what’s left of any kind of jazz mainstream – which doesn’t seem to exist any more than it does in rock or any other style of music these days – what’s been surprisingly absent from the discussion is how much gravitas amd depth Iyer brings to the equation. Sometimes a single note – here, for example, a lingering, quiet low lefthand accent after a briskly dissociative take of Herbie Nichols’ Wildflower has ended and is fading out – is all he needs to drive the mood home. Long ago, Dave Brubeck began working that magisterial territory with the same kind of rhythmic authority that Iyer does here with his trio, Stephan Crump and Marcus Gilmore. More recently, Marc Cary, and to some extent, Gerald Clayton have roamed with the same kind of understated drama and majesty without losing the pulse of the music. Ultimately, that’s what gives Iyer’s work (and Brubeck’s, and Cary’s, and Clayton’s) lasting value.

In case you missed it elsewhere, the theme of Accelerando is dance rhythms, and all the fun that can be had with them. As usual, the compositions are a mix of originals and covers from across the musical spectrum, from the sublimely avant to the ridiculously commercial. Much as the rhythms are jaunty, the moods tend to be brooding, sometimes verging on menace. Bode, the Satie-esque modal piece that opens the album, builds to a Cary-esque rumble. The modal intensity is maintained on the nimbly dancing, somewhat ironically titled Optimism, a blend of grace and gravitas, Gilmore shadowing and then driving the long upward arc. Similarly, Iyer engages the drums in the muddled, off-center rhythms of a radical reinvention of The Star of a Story – a semi-hit by the 70s disco band Heatwave – moving from pretty straightforward funk into the smoke above the embers, and then back out.

Iyer’s attempt to reduce a rather frantic, largescale Henry Threadgill Very Very Circus piece, Little Pocket Size Demons, to its essence is wildly successful, with creepy, aching bowed bass over a piano loop, Gilmore’s right foot steady as the rhythm expands, Iyer more allusive than outright menacing. The wryly titled Lude is a somewhat more subdued adventure in the push-pull of action versus pensive stasis, fueled irrepressibly and funkily by Crump and Gilmore. The title track rises with a McCoy Tyner-esque stomp over a hypnotic major sixth vamp and goes phantasmagorical, while Actions Speak bounces variations off an agitated piano cluster, from dizzy apprehension to matter-of-fact rippling throughout pretty much the entirety of the keys. The album concludes with a surprisingly terse, gospel-drenched take of The Village of the Virgins, an Ellington ballet number:

There are also a couple of tracks here that add nothing to the album, both of them covers. Mmmhmm – credited to Flying Lotus, a purveyor of insipid electronic dancefloor beats – gets an atmospheric trip-hop backbone, Crump’s agile bowed lines over Iyer’s lushly sustained low lefthand that eventually expands by leaps and bounds. It’s attractive, and moody – and nothing that Lisa Hilton couldn’t have pulled off. Michael Jackson’s Human Nature syncopates and caches the melody in polyrhythms, then finally gets hit head on. The choice of this song in particular is a mystery: the hook isn’t very strong to begin with, and it has baggage, a cloying, schlocky top 40 ballad recorded by someone who will ultimately be remembered, if at all, for his crimes against children rather than for anything he did in showbiz. If there’s anything to take from this, it’s that the richness and intensity that defines Iyer’s compositions is sometimes lost when he tackles inferior composers – and compared to Iyer, most composers are.

October 9, 2012 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Winter Jazzfest 2012: Good Times at Day Two

Winter Jazzfest, the annual festival where some of the cheesy Bleecker Street clubs turn into an astonishingly eclectic jazz mecca for a couple of nights, has come to dovetail with the annual booking agents’ convention otherwise known as APAP. That’s a great thing for the artists, who get a chance to turn their shows into auditions for at least potentially lucrative gigs; it’s a less auspicious development for the general public. More on that later. Friday’s lineup actually looked at first glance to be more enticing than Saturday’s, but Friday night there was an even better concert at Alwan for the Arts.

Once Jazzfest day two began, it was clear that the night had the potential to be an embarrassment of riches. From this particular perspective, the evening began and ended with familiar sounds – the pleasantly melodic, creatively orchestrated, occasionally modal postbop of pianist Laurence Hobgood and his sextet at le Poisson Rouge to kick things off – and ended with the high-energy, solo-centric psychedelic funk-bop of trumpeter Wallace Roney and his group at Sullivan Hall. In between, there were seemingly unlimited choices, many of them Hobson’s Choices: the best way to approach this festival is to bring a friend, see a completely different series of shows, record everything and then exchange recordings afterward. There’s literally something for every taste here, from the most mainstream to the most exciting.

As Hobgood’s set was winding down, bassist Jason Ajemian’s Highlife were launching into their possibly satirical, assaultive no wave funk at Kenny’s Castaways. Down the block at the Bitter End, bassist Stephan Crump led his Rosetta Trio with guitarists Liberty Ellman on acoustic and Jamie Fox on electric, through a series of jazzed-up Grateful Dead-style vamps and big-sky themes. Then, back at Kenny’s Castaways, the pyrotechnics began with Herculaneum: what a great find that Chicago band is. With a blazing four-horn frontline, hypnotically catchy, repetitive bass and a remarkably terse, creative drummer in Dylan Ryan, they groove with a ferocity seldom seen in this part of town. Where in New York do they typically play? For starters, Zebulon and Cake Shop. They opened with their best number, the horns agitatedly but smoothly trading off in lushly interwoven counterpoint, tenor saxophonist Nate Lepine – who seems to be one of the ringleaders of this crew – sailing intensely yet tunefully through a couple of long solos before handing it over to trombonist Nick Broste, who brought in an unexpectedly suspenseful noir vibe before the towering, vivid chart that ended it on a high note. Wow! The rest of the set included syncopated, Ethiopian-tinged funk that wouldn’t be out of place in the recent Either/Orchestra catalog; a wryly catchy, swaying midtempo number that reminded a little of Moisturizer, with Lepine wandering warily into noir territory before David McDonnell’s alto sax swirled in to save everything; an Indian-inflected flute tune; a delicious 11/4 clave piece with some tricky, microtonal playing by Lepine; and a memorably psychedelic shuffle that sounded like a beefed-up version of Moon Hooch. Fans of more traditional jazz might be wondering who the hell those bands are, but to a younger generation of New Yorkers, they’re very popular, even iconic. It was good to see Herculaneum get the chance to represent the future of jazz so auspiciously here.

And it was an unexpected treat to be able to get a seat to see their set; by ten PM, that was no longer in the cards. For that matter, neither was seeing Vijay Iyer and his trio, or for that matter Matt Wilson with his quartet and a string section, unless you were already in the club, because both le Poisson Rouge and the Bitter End were sold out, lines reaching halfway down the block. It was nice to see a young, scruffy crowd that doesn’t usually spend much time in the pricier jazz clubs come out and testify to the fact that Matt Wilson is worth standing in line for; it would have been nicer to have actually seen him play.

But there was still space over at Sullivan Hall to see pianist Fabian Almazan and his rhythm section, with bassist Linda Oh playing terrifically vivid, horn-inflected lines as he showed off his dazzling technique. Then he brought up an all-star string section of violinists Megan Gould (who’d just stunned the crowd the night before at Maqamfest with Maeandros) and Jenny Scheinman, the Roulette Sisters’ Karen Waltuch on viola and Noah Hoffeld (who has a great new album of Jewish music with pianist Lee Feldman) playing his cello with a vibrato you could drive a truck through, tackling a jazz arrangement of a Shostakovich string quartet and making it look easy without losing any of the original’s haunting quality. Which was especially good for Almazan, because it made him slow down, focus and make his notes count: it’s a no-brainer that he can do it, but it’s good to see that he actually enjoys doing it. Then they followed with an equally captivating, brooding third-stream arrangement of a Cuban folk ballad.

Back at Kenny’s Castaways again, “bebop terrorists” Mostly Other People Do the Killing had just wrapped up their set (this club seems to be where the festival hid all the edgiest acts). Bassist Shahzad Ismaily was next, leading a trio with Mat Maneri on violin and Ches Smith on drums. This was the most radically improvisational set of the night and was every bit as fun as Herculaneum had been. Ismaily quickly became a human loop machine, running hypnotic riff after hypnotic riff for minutes on end as Smith colored them with every timbre he could coax from the kit, whether rubbing the drum heads til they hummed or expertly flicking at every piece of metal within reach while Maneri alternated between hammering staccato, ghostly atmospherics and bluesy wails much in the same vein as the late, great Billy Bang. As deliciously atonal and often abrasive as much of the music was, the warm camaraderie between the musicians was obvious, violin and bass at one point involved in an animated conversation fueled by the sheets of feedback screaming from Ismaily’s amp, after which point they kept going at each other but as if from behind a wall, jabbing playfully at each others’ phrases.

By midnight, Sullivan Hall was about to reach critical mass, crowdwise if not exactly musically. Would it make sense to stick around for the 2 AM grooves of Soul Cycle followed by Marc Cary, or to see if there might be any room at the festival’s smallest venue, Zinc Bar, to check out Sharel Cassity’s set with Xavier Davis on piano at one in the morning? After more than five hours worth of music, and not having gotten home until four the previous morning, it was time to call it a night – and then get up and do it all over again one final time at Globalfest on Sunday evening.

And while it’s heartwarming to see such a good turnout of passionate jazz fans, not everyone who was packing the clubs was there for the music. What quickly became obvious as the night wore on is that many of the people there, most noticeably the drunks bellowing at each other over the music, were tourists from the suburbs who make this part of “Green Witch Village” their home on Saturday nights. Initially baffled when they discovered that they couldn’t get inside their usual haunts without a pass, they simply went around the corner to the ticket window at the Theatre for the New City space, pulled out their moms’ credit cards, and you know the rest. A word to the wise for next year: if you really must see one of the ten PM acts, get where they’re playing by nine or risk missing them. And you might want to hang there for the rest of the night as well.

January 11, 2012 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments