Vijay Iyer Trio Grooves, Delights

From the Oberlin Review:

They begin to play: a perverse electronic drumbeat punctuated by abrupt bass notes, like a drunken man knocking over tables as he lurches out of a bar. Broken chords speed up and slow down on the piano in an uneven cycle. The drummer starts a more coherent beat, somehow meshing with the piano despite refusing to match its rhythm. And the bassist unrelentingly hammers out that introductory pattern.

Such is Vijay Iyer’s song “Accelerando,” which opened his trio’s show last Thursday night at the ’Sco. Iyer, who earned a degree in mathematics and physics from Yale before becoming a jazz pianist and composer, is fascinated by rhythm. Many of his compositions and improvisations are based on complex rhythmic patterns, perhaps informed by his studies in math. He and his trio, composed of Stephan Crump on bass and Marcus Gilmore on drums, lock into stuttering loops and slowly build in intensity, dancing toward energetic peaks. These rhythms rotate as if they were a weighted rope being swung in a circle, slowing near the top, then building momentum as it rounds the bottom of its path.

This kind of music nods to hip-hop and electronic music in its repetitions — Iyer is a known fan of the electronic musician Flying Lotus, even covering FlyLo’s “MmmHmm” on his most recent album — but remains vitally invested in the history of jazz by emphasizing danceability. You may not be able to do the Charleston to an Iyer tune, but you will want to jerk along to the beat. In fact, “Accelerando” was originally written for a dance company. Unfortunately that call to move was restricted by the concert being mostly seated.

When Iyer and his trio hit a groove, as they did in “Hood,” they live in it and wear it down, deepening it until the listener’s body internalizes it; when the pulses don’t quite reach that sweet spot, the music is easily enjoyable, though banal. The band continues to repeat the same material, trying to allow the rhythm to connect, but it just sounds like they are unsure where to go next. Iyer’s soloing style similarly favors rhythm. Rich chords and strongly melodic lines are not for him, though he can easily wield them, as he demonstrated in two ballads on Thursday. Rather, he finds a riff, sometimes as basic as a fragment of a scale, and pushes it further and further up the keyboard. It sometimes leaves one yearning for a songful episode or an unexpected turn to a strange new area of the music. Rhythm can be incredibly powerful, especially when it is executed with such nuances as the Vijay Iyer Trio bring. But so are surprise and melody.

Michael Jackson’s “Human Nature” allowed the band to enter a potent groove while offering fertile melodic and harmonic material. The trio became one entity, urging the entire room to breathe, bob and tap their feet together, using the beat as a transcendental unifying force. Tunes like this affirm Iyer’s belief that rhythm really is one of the fundamental forces in life, from the way we move all the way down to our heartbeat.

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