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.
Last night at the Met Breuer (formerly known as the Whitney), Vijay Iyer and Wadada Leo Smith played ECM noir. For those who don’t follow jazz improvisation, ECM is the venerable German label devoted to the spare, classically-influenced kind, and these two have a new album, A Cosmic Rhythm with Each Stroke, out from them. It doesn’t swing: it marinates. And what a marinade the state-of-the-art pianist and iconic trumpeter came up with in front of a sold-out crowd that rewarded them with a couple of standing ovations.
That marinade had acerbity and spice, and if you buy the metaphor, astringency, but also a persistent unease that often drifted into ominousness and desolation. According to Iyer, they drew significantly on the spare, meticulously miniamlistc work of Nasreen Mohamedi currently on display at the museum, which is where the Metropolitan Museum of Art has decided to stash their modern collection. The chemistry and cameraderie between the two players was comfortable to the point of joyous restraint. Each musician played with economy, Iyer with a chilly, airconditioned judiciousness, otherworldly Messiaenic harmonies, bell tones and an incessant, stygian pedalpoint that he finally took into the upper registers. For someone so direct, transparent and dedicated to getting the max out of the min, Smith employed a surprising amount of extended technique, from valve-shivering harmonics to ghostly wisps of breath.
This being a duo improvisation, there was all sorts of repartee, but ultimately the conversation wound down to “I’ve got your back.” Each anchored the other when he’d go out on a limb, Smith often providing calm, steady half-notes while Iyer clustered or insistently chiseled out space, Iyer providing moody reflecting pools and upper-register penlight illumination when Smith would fire off a series of flurries. Including the encore, there seemed to be six discrete pieces, most of them following a segue. Each segment followed a steady series of upward and downward arcs, Smith using his mute when the shadows grew longest, Iyer switching back and forth between piano and Rhodes as well as a mini-synth and mixer which he used for distant atmospherics and, finally, a persistent, looping rhythm. In the end, they came full circle, back to Iyer’s high/low, troubled/guardedly optimistic dialectics, Smith hovering with a magisterial warmth overhead.
And as if to say to the crowd, “You’ve earned it,” the encore was more still, and minimalistic, and rapt than anything they’d done to that point – but also prayerful and ultimately hopeful. At the end, Smith went way up high for a fleeting two-note phrase and then immediately looked to Iyer with a we-got-it grin. Iyer sat motionless, holding down the keys: he wasn’t going to give anything away until its time. It made for an unexpectedly amusing ending to broodingly rapt night. Iyer and Smith are embarking on a US tour; dates are here.
In the simpering, twee world of indie rock, technology is a crutch to be employed whenever possible: after all, what could be more lame than using a crutch whether it’s needed or not? Wednesday night at the World Financial Center, WNYC New Sounds Live host John Schaefer asked Victoire bandleader Missy Mazzoli if electronics were now an essential part of a composer’s arsenal. Not at all, Mazzoli replied, explaining that she simply chose to use them because they were well-suited to her swirling, atmospheric compositional style. And the way she works them into her music, they are, adding subtle colors and textures to her signature gossamer sheen. Yet as much as Mazzoli’s music, especially with this band, is in the here-and-now, the intricacy of her counterpoint and harmonies draws a straight line back to the baroque. Scarlatti would have been mesmerized by what he heard from this group.
They opened with the title track to their 2010 album Cathedral City, Olivia De Prato’s swirling, plaintive violin contrasting with the echoey wishing pool below, mingling with vocals from Caroline Shaw and Mellissa Hughes and Eleonore Oppenheim’s tersely sustained bass. The second song built from nebulously pulsing atmospherics, rising with Eileen Mack’s clarinet, then elegantly handing off to the violin, the exchange of textures pulling tensely away from the center. Meanwhile, keyboardist Lorna Krier got to sink her fingers into some of the night’s juiciest textures: a warped tone not unlike a Hawaiian steel guitar, ominously oscillating organ and reverb-toned electric piano. She also switched back and forth between her keyboard and a mixer, with split-second timing, and made it look easy. Meanwhile, Mazzoli held to stately, terse counterrythms at the keys of her Nord Electro. They closed their short set with A Song for Mick Kelly, imagining how the heroine of Carson McCullers’ The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter might have written as a woman in 1930s Georgia. It wasn’t what you’d expect, echoey violin over an atmospheric drone, eventually building to understatedly apprehensive swirls and flurries made all the more dramatic in the absence of the screaming electric guitar part on the album. The contrast between Hughes’ soaring resonance and Shaw’s plaintive timbre enhanced the song’s distant longing.
You have to hand it to Schaefer. As wide a net as he’s cast over the decades, his coverage can be erratic, compounded by the fact that most of the trust-funded dilettantes who would have set up shop in the lofts of experimental music thirty years ago now make indie rock their luxury condo. But few people other than Schaefer would make the connection between Victoire and the evening’s headline act, Vijay Iyer – it was a segue worthy of Bill Graham. Iyer wrapped up the night – scheduled to air sometime in the near future on WNYC – with an epic, menacing version of Accelerando, the title track from his latest album with his long-running trio, bassist Stephan Crump and drummer Marcus Gilmore.
You could call it the Halloween remix – and that’s how it started, the staggered ipod beat that opens the version on the album (which famously won all those awards earlier this year) high in the mix to the point where in the early going it drowned out Gilmore’s judicious accents. And Gilmore soon fell out of sync with it – whether this was intentional, as if to say, we don’t need this garbage, or simply because he couldn’t hear it onstage, it was a case where technology was very much the enemy. But it was gone quickly. The rest of the song was an eerie, glimmering feast of ominous chromatics and rich sustain. Iyer is extraordinarily perceptive of his surroundings, and within fifteen seconds of the song’s opening, he’d begun hitting the high notes hard to get the piano resonating and echoing in the atrium’s boomy sonics. Crump danced and somersaulted, trading off pushing the rhythm with Iyer as Gilmore added subtle color with his cymbals – he, too, was feeling the room. Rising and falling, they finally went up to the point where Iyer blasted a macabre seven-note riff over and over and then finally wound it down gracefully at the end. And then the show was over. Which might explain why the performance hadn’t drawn every jazz fan in town: knowing that this would be rebroadcast, they made what ultimately might have been the smart move and decided to wait to hear it in the comfort of home.