Vijay Iyer’s new trio is greater than the sum of his talents


At the end of the album version of Wu-Tang Clan’s “Can It Be All So Simple”, RZA’s grimy and heartbreaking beat turns into an early ’90s radio review featuring clan members Raekwon and Method. Man. They explain the “why” behind Shaolin Crew’s colorful nicknames, and as he explains the genius of GZA, Method Man compares the full Wu-Tang to Voltron. You know, this thing:

It’s that real 1980s cartoon super-bot made of little robots; a mech-amalgam of its individual members coming together to form an all-powerful greater than the sum of its parts.

Although they are already sufficiently powerful and individually respected, their cohesion into one being seems inevitable. Their connection saves the day.

That brief moment of local radio captured on a 1993 LP came to the fore as I listened to an entirely different album released 18 years later: Worried, the pandemic fall of pianist Vijay Iyer. Or rather, it’s Vijay Iyer more bassist Linda May Han Oh more percussionist Tyshawn Sorey – each of these musicians equally shares the work and is credited as such. Individually, the members of this trio exploit the vibrations of their sound machines with the most skilful of touches and arouse great respect from the artistic community; as leaders, they seem more than well equipped to take on the most grueling musical challenges. But here they combine their forces and form their own Voltron.

They operate in similar orbits – for starters, Iyer and Sorey are both Genius Grant beneficiaries. Oh, with his two band mates, numbers among the teachers of the Banff International Workshop in Jazz & Creative Music. To me, their presence seems personal to me: Oh was the first bassist I saw in concert in New York; Iyer’s music was present on the speakers of the monitor where I worked as a student programmer / DJ at WKCR in New York, and on at least one Das Racist mixtape that I kept on heavy rotation. Sorey and I have never crossed paths so closely, but I was confused for him twice in three days by the same woman at of them different places (she wasn’t too keen on the idea that not all blacks are, in fact, the same). Given this level of orbit, the fact that it took them so long to record together, at least officially, feels like a mere delay of the inevitable.

Worried opens with “Children of Flint,” a title referencing the half-decade public water crisis that devastated the city of Michigan. Oh get a solo from the jump – those low wave vibrations bounce off your frame; some make their way in you. Depending on the speakers you are using, it may even take on a quality reminiscent of the music Redman says “ba-BUMP” and “make[s] are pop speakers. “

From the start you can describe this as a tactile album – you feel Oh’s bass just as you feel the wobble of Iyer’s left hand and the crisp, calculated strokes in Sorey’s mind and executed by a confident wrist. Sometimes you feel familiar – like with the looping figure of “Drummer’s Song” (or an attachment to the original Geri Allen), or the subtle but no less steady drone of “Touba”. But sometimes you also feel the urgency. It’s an album from then and an album from today; some things, after all – never for the better and always for the worse – do not change. You could say that this life is difficult.

Concrete example: “Combat breathing”. Here we find our interlocutors engaged in a lively and exciting musical dialogue. Iyer’s lingering chord figures feature prominently in the affair like a set of triple-ringing bells that sometimes suspend us in time. Iyer originally wrote this in 2014 with the action of Black Lives Matter in mind, but it’s contextually. too much at home in 2021 to meditate on the murderous manifestation of police violence: Not long ago, Derek Chauvin was just convicted of three counts for the murder of George Floyd a year earlier. If you did not know the when of “Combat Breathing,” no one would blame you for thinking it was a recent creation.

As the modern plague (and the preservation of ego and willful ignorance that follows) has demonstrated, these crises abound. Life doesn’t come to you as fast as it just appears when you want it to. Take the circumstances of this particular group, destined (perhaps) to join forces and record an album that I will listen to (certainly). Iyer, Sorey and Oh are no strangers to each other in a collaborative context; the former duo bonded in 2003 Blood sutra and as recently as 2017 Far from over.

As we told Nate Chinen, in an interview broadcast on NPR, Iyer identifies the birth of the band at Jazz Standard in June 2019. Like many of us, Iyer was caught in the whirlwind of possibilities that defined this. summer: the last summer full of thrills, promise and potential that could only come before the dawn of a freshly baked new decade. At the end of the summer, they were discussing the possibility of a record. At the end of 2019, they did. And then 2020.

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It’s hard to look at the album cover for Worried – the Statue of Liberty, standing in the nocturnal solitude of Upper New York Bay – and don’t place it among the all-too-familiar images of deserted streets, dead parks, and buildings ravaged by people. Think for a moment, and you might want “normal” bustling boulevards and fully occupied green spaces.

But think for of them beats, especially after listening to this set, and you will realize how precarious those times were. It has always been uncomfortable. And it will probably stay that way, until we can form a voltron that can do justice to those forces that make this life so difficult in the first place.

Check back later this week for a chat with Iyer about his thoughts on this review and everything that might be going on his mind.


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