Jazz CD Reviews

Vijay Iyer, solo piano – Solo – ACT

On his first solo piano album, Vijay Iyer flows from past to present to future to create an intense artistic journey.

Published on August 27, 2010

Vijay Iyer, solo piano – Solo – ACT

Vijay Iyer, solo piano – Solo – ACT 9497-2, 56:59 [8/31/10] ****1/2:

After listening to pianist Vijay Iyer’s first solo album, simply titled Solo, the initial inquiry is: what took so long? Iyer’s multifaceted career has been fruitful: he worked with Steve Coleman and the M-Base collective in the mid 1990s, collaborated with Roscoe Mitchell and Wadada Leo Smith, has been involved in classical commissions, rock projects and traditional Indian music and earlier this year was named Musician of the Year by the Jazz Journalists Association. In addition, Iyer has already done solo tours, so this unaccompanied studio excursion was the logical next step.

On Solo, Iyer’s varied influences range from a pop tune cover to jazz standards to an extended section devoted to his own compositions. There are abundant layers that provide depth and delineation. For example, Iyer starts and ends the 11-track program with tributes, the first about an individual’s disposition (the interior world) and the last honoring a man who believed he came from outer space in a search for new unexplored territory. It might seem odd to begin with a Michael Jackson single, but Iyer’s interpretation of “Human Nature” is an appropriate way to commence.  Iyer heard the radio hit as an impressionable 11-year-old boy and has featured the piece in his set list since Jackson’s 2009 death. While Iyer maintains the melodic pulse, he finds a novel perspective and slips in some harmonic surprises. There’s a similar structure to the commanding “One for Blount,” Iyer’s dedication to Sun Ra, aka Herman “Sonny” Blount. Both tunes have a lively quality, with either rhythmic blues or rhythm and blues motifs, however “One for Blount” is fittingly more ferocious and fertile.

Iyer has listed Thelonious Monk has one of several inspirations and Iyer does justice to the bop and postbop pioneer with a five-minute deconstruction of “Epistrophy” where Iyer reorganizes the phrasing until the well-known theme finally ascends at the conclusion, a maneuver that imparts mystery and appreciation to Monk’s creation. Iyer accomplishes a comparable creative spin to Duke Ellington’s “Black and Tan Fantasy,” where he cites Ellington’s original published score as well as Monk’s 1955 performance of the same work: listeners get both Ellington’s stride piano references as well as Monk’s unorthodox, taut cadence. The other Ellington exposition is an expanded rendition of “Fleurette Africaine,” which has lately been rediscovered by jazz artists, and is here delivered moody and ominous.

The album’s second half is dominated by Iyer’s 21-minute suite of his own material, which is launched by the brief discord of “Prelude: Heartpiece,” followed by the dense, Cecil Taylor-esque “Autoscopy,” which Iyer says refers to the type of out-of-body experience that playing music sometimes offers: the kind of event that transcends the here and now. While “Autoscopy” has a nearly arithmetical advancement, the lengthiest number, “Patterns,” is a free-form improvisation fronted by swelling tempo changes, with a recurring melodic sketch that brings a sense of equilibrium. The mini-suite closes with a revision of romantic ode “Desiring,” which appeared on Iyer’s 2003 outing Blood Sutra.

1. Human Nature
2. Epistrophy
3. Darn that Dream
4. Black & Tan Fantasy
5. Prelude: Heartpiece
6. Autoscopy
7. Patterns
8. Desiring
9. Games
10. Fleurette Africaine
11. One for Blount

— Doug Simpson

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