Vijay Iyer – Mutations [TrackList follows] – ECM

by | May 14, 2014 | Jazz CD Reviews

Vijay Iyer – Mutations [TrackList follows] – ECM 2372, 60:13 [3/4/14] (Distr. by Universal) ****:

(Vijay Iyer – piano, electronics; Miranda Cuckson – violin; Michi Wiancko – violin; Kyle Armbrust – viola; Kivie Cahn-Lipman – violincello; Manfred Eicher – producer)

Composer-pianist Vijay Iyer (pronounced “VID-jay EYE-yer”) is an acclaimed jazz musician who has been nominated for a Grammy Award, honored with a 2013 MacArthur “genius” fellowship, got five wins in the 2012 Down Beat International Critics Poll, has issued almost 20 albums as a leader, collaborated with other artists, and his innovative material often challenges his audience’s anticipations.

Iyer’s latest record, Mutations, also his first on ECM, is a continuation of his expansive imagination. At the center is the 40-minute “Mutations” suite, a ten-part composition scored for a string quartet, piano and electronics. The CD is bookended by solo piano pieces: two at the front and one at the backend. Iyer mentions in his liner notes that “mutations are incremental changes in genetic material.” The lengthy title suite is also constructed from musical units and bits which veer through many impressions, from quietly sublime to driving and pushing. The general outcome is atmospheric and miles away from work Iyer has done with players such as Rudresh Mahanthappa. Also absent are Iyer’s fiery renderings of modern pop hits, his Hindustani or Indian influences, and his muscular post-bop and modal explorations. But that does not imply this is soothing music. The tracks are partially lyrical and at times luminous. But Iyer’s thematic movements, the way he interlaces acoustic and electronic textures, and his sometimes resolute improvisational interpolations, result in music which forces listeners out of any comfort zone. “Mutations I-X” was initially performed in 2005 and combines notated passages, coordinated improvisations and electronic sounds wrought from samples of the musicians. In essence, Iyer intended the ten central sketches to generate a longer configuration, like assembling smaller chapters to compile a connected novel. In an eight-minute promo video, Iyer discusses his concepts, how he put this venture together, and takes people into the studio to hear some musical excerpts.

Iyer accomplishes his ideas through incorporation of through-composed as well as spontaneous elements, by means of representational musical phrases and also via unplanned patterns of development. During “Mutation III: Canon” Iyer’s classical background can be noticed. He studied violin for 15 years before switching to piano, so it is no surprise to detect the spirits of Beethoven and György Ligeti alongside those of jazz keyboardists such as Duke Ellington or Paul Bley. A sense of cyclical dynamism enters during “Mutation VI: Waves,” which is touched by minimalism similar to Michael Nyman or Philip Glass. On the other hand, free-flowing invention is replete during “Mutations VII: Kernel,” where Iyer allows the strings to play as they want. Even with the prospect for confusion and awkward conflict, the piece is artistically lovely. As the overall album design evolves over the course of an hour, attentive listeners will understand how Iyer’s complete program functions. By the end, with “Mutations X: Time,” the strings undergo an alteration from harmonic or melodic to a flexible rhythmic response, and keep time with Iyer’s subtle keyboard shifts.

The opener is a solo piano interpretation of “Spellbound and Sacrosanct, Cowrie Shells and the Shimmering Sea,” which originally appeared on Iyer’s trio outing, 1995’s Memorophilia. The nearly eight-minute piece denotes Iyer’s harmonic refinement and formal-seeming improvisation, akin to Keith Jarrett’s solo piano excursions. The other two cuts are newer and were created in summer 2013 at the Hermitage Artist Retreat. During “Vuln, Part 2” Iyer’s piano is set at a counterpoint with electronically-fashioned rhythms and ambient surfaces, somewhat reminiscent of Brian Eno. Concluding number, “When We’re Gone” has a related slant, with an elegiac keyboard atop barely discerned, suspended electronic vibrations which some may mistake for speaker line hum or a bad cord connection. The frequently flickering and atmospheric material was exquisitely captured in New York’s Avatar Studios by engineer James Farber. He brings a discreet, audiophile poise to the at times nearly inaudible instances, and sonic intimacy to even the most dissonant moments. Mutations might not be a starting point for neophytes who are not familiar with Iyer, but longer-term fans will certainly find it interesting.

TrackList: Spellbound and Sacrosanct, Cowrie Shells and the Shimmering Sea; Vuln, Part 2; Mutations I-X: I: Air, II: Rise, III: Canon, IV: Chain, V: Automata, VI: Waves, VII: Kernel, VIII: Ciade, IX: Descent, X: Time; When We’re Gone.

—Doug Simpson

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