From my music criticism class (forgot to post this back in November when it was written…):
What is a MacArthur genius grant winner with degrees in mathematics and physics and a doctorate doing playing jazz? In the case of Vijay Iyer, using that analytical brain to create intricate, fascinating rhythms.
On Accelerando (2012, on ACT Music + Vision), Iyer and his trio find incredible grooves whose complexity belies their infectiousness. As brainy as the music may be on paper, it engages the body rather than the mind, irresistibly compelling you to dance along.
It may be a very strange dance, though. On a track like “Actions Speak,” a steady beat is nearly impossible to find in the frenetic, disjointed main riff. Meters constantly change, and the layering of disjunct parts undermines any sense of stability. The intensity builds, then Iyer and Crump drop out after a scale to the top of the piano, as if they fell off a cliff. Drummer Marcus Gilmore demonstrates his incredible rhythmic independence in a solo that sounds as though two drummers are playing: one to keep the intricate groove, and another to layer rapid rolls and cymbal splashes over that.
Most of the songs on the record follow that same basic pattern of a convoluted rhythmic ostinato and a surging build. “Optimism” features a herky-jerky beat with a jabbing melody. In their solos, Iyer and Crump patiently explore their instruments, wandering spelunkers following melodies where they lead. Repeating chords accumulate to an ecstatic climax, an outpouring of optimism. The short title track opens with electronic drums and bludgeoning hits from piano and bass that seem to continually speed up then restart. “Bode” opens the CD with an ominous atmosphere, a swelling sea that reaches a storm and subsides.
Iyer’s focus on repeating patterns disposes him to popular songs as well as jazz, as is evident from the covers on “Accelerando.” These borrowed songs are some of the highlights of the album. The cool riff of disco band Heatwave’s “The Star of a Story” is intensified by Crump and Gilmore’s hiccupping accompaniment. Michael Jackson’s “Human Nature” retains its catchiness, but is made beautifully consoling, a nostalgic tribute that features some of Iyer’s most delicate playing and an understated solo from Crump. “Mmmhmm” by electronic musician Flying Lotus becomes expansive and visionary in the trio’s hands.
The album also features three jazz tunes not by Iyer. The Mingus-esque “Wildflower,” by Herbie Nichols, has the most straight-ahead swing on the record, but is rhythmically fragmented, a grotesque caricature of jazz. Henry Threadgill’s “Little Pocket Size Demons” is true to its title with moaning bass and a demented, angular riff, but runs a bit long. The album unfortunately ends with an uninspired and trite reading of Duke Ellington’s bland “The Village of the Virgins.” The only track where Iyer forgoes his rhythmic games, it makes a good case that those rhythms are what defines his playing.
Rather than showcasing virtuosic playing, Iyer and his trio focus on rhythm and texture, creating compelling grooves and climaxes through massive builds that appeal even to fans of pop and rock. Who would have expected a math genius to be able to do that?