Solo is a chance for the erudite Vijay Iyer to create a new dialogue, one that exists between him and the older generation of improvisers that have made their mark on jazz piano.
“Dialogue”—an exchange of ideas between two or more persons; a conversation between characters.
You’ve heard it time and again: “Dialogue” is what can make music performed in a group setting so exciting, vibrant, so human. That conversation is also what might wind up lost when you take all the musicians away and leave only one soloist. For this one musician, there is suddenly no one to interact with, no host to feed off of, and there is definitely no hiding. But when listening to Vijay Iyer’s Solo, released August 30 on the ACT Music + Vision label, I redefined “dialogue” in my mind. The album is Iyer’s first foray into a solo piano recital. It’s a chance to hear him outside of his working trio with Stephen Crump and Marcus Gilmore or the band Fieldwork featuring alto saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa. Solo is a chance for the erudite Iyer to create a new dialogue, one that exists between him and the older generation of improvisers that have made their mark on jazz piano. More specifically, the exchange is between him and names like Cecil Taylor, Andrew Hill, Muhal Richard Abrams, Thelonious Monk, and even Duke Ellington.
As if playing solo piano isn’t daunting enough already: A listener will become exposed to each and every hang up, each weakness, and they will attribute them all to the soloist since there is no one else to judge. Iyer, despite these challenges, ultimately rises above the impending doom, and emerges with a sound all his own and a comment that is profound. Think for a second about all the pianists that go their entire careers without a really remarkable solo record. This is also why this format is logical territory for a shining star like Vijay Iyer, already a celebrated jazz man approaching his forties, who has landed on the covers of many jazz magazines and won numerous awards, including the award of 2010 Musician of the Year from the Jazz Journalists Association. Iyer’s music is informed by the piano tradition, including the iconic names above. Taylor, Hill, and Abrams occupied an innovative, down-right radical space during the ’50s and ‘60s. Monk and Ellington came out of an earlier period of American music that many pianists see as a paradise of skill, execution, and bravado. Regarding execution in the older “stride” style Monk and Ellington favored, Iyer puts all “Mr. One-Hands” to shame. Listen to his original “Patterns” for a taste.
Listen to “Patterns”:[audio: http://media.rvanews.com/07%20Patterns.mp3|titles=Patterns|artists=Vijay Iyer]
Throughout the album, Iyer shows his focus in the dialogue with the older generations. He tests himself on Monk’s “Epistrophy,” finding the extroverted, free side of composer, which many jazzmen who were there in the ‘50s said that Monk actually was looking for within his own personal idiom but never found. With the ballad “Darn that Dream,” his treatment is deferential to the way Monk played it solo on his recording for Columbia in 1965, adding sparse harmonic alterations, and casually keeping the tune’s melody out front, but possibly with too much hammering like Monk could also be guilty of. “Black and Tan Fantasy,” a whimsical minor blues with a bridge and a quote of Chopin’s Funeral March to close, is given a curious treatment. Iyer speeds up the dominant-tonic cadences at the beginning until he settles on a tempo that suits the rest of his excursion.
On the middle five tracks beginning with “Prelude” and ending with “Games,” Iyer shows how he relates to the celebrated “avant garde” pianists like Andrew Hill, Cecil Taylor, Muhal Richard Abrams and others. “Patterns” has his most extroverted playing of the originals, and its rigid logic hints at a twelve-tone school of thought, but the spirited melodies speak more to a freedom and discerning nature. “Desiring” has a painterly sound, versus the dryness of “Patterns” and another workout on “Autoscopy,” the direction of which is at times fragmented and darting like a Taylor improvisation. It’s no surprise that throughout the suite, Iyer’s originals call upon the aggressive, at times frenzied playing of Taylor, who has always been one of his main informants.
As I mentioned, Iyer is very much a two-handed pianist, and shows some serious two-handed playing particularly on the tender pop ballad from Michael Jackson’s Thriller titled “Human Nature,” constructing a climactic arrangement that lets each line (melody and background riffs) sing out. On Ellington’s “African Flower,” the pleasure lies in the soulfulness of the left hand, stoically keeping the time centered while the right hand dispatches dissonant, but warmly enticing chords. Overall, Iyer has a knack for letting each tune breathe and live both in the world of its celebrated predecessor, and in his own conception. The possibilities that Iyer engages on “Epistrophy” and “Human Nature” show his cleverness, but he still cuts to a direct approach to the heart of the song on covers like “African Flower,” “Black and Tan Fantasy,” and “Darn that Dream.” He fashions his loudest playing at the end on the fast blues “One for Blount,” (named after Sonny Blount, or by his stage name “Sun Ra”) and this dynamic shift seems like a fitting end to the album as a complete performance.
Listen to “Human Nature”:[audio: http://media.rvanews.com/01%20Human%20Nature.mp3|titles=Human Nature|artists=Vijay Iyer]
Throughout Solo, Iyer’s encyclopedic intelligence (he holds a doctorate from U.C. Berkeley in Technology and the Arts) doesn’t impede the way he throws his rough emotions into the music. He allows for lots of classicism while he nods at the great masters that came before him, but he also constructs innovative arrangements of covers from these pop and jazz worlds that he holds dear. Solo, for all its sophistication and learning, ultimately honors those pianists that made their mark on record decades before.