Alan Nahigian Vijay Iyer is explaining about gamaka, one of the keystone…
- Posted on Aug 19th 2010 2:00PM by Tad Hendrickson
Iyer has gotten strong notices since making his 1995 debut, working in a wide variety of settings ranging from leading his own jazz groups and his political albums with hip-hop artist Mike Ladd to the collaborative Fieldwork trio and his ongoing work with Rudresh Mahanthappa. He also dabbles in classical commissions, rock music and traditional Indian music, and plays also sideman gigs with Roscoe Mitchell, Wadada Leo Smith and Steve Coleman. With this omnivorous musical approach, it should come as no surprise that Iyer chooses to follow up his 2009 trio album with 'Solo,' his first solo album.
While many pianists look upon a solo effort as a welcome challenge, Iyer was in no hurry to tackle it. "Part of it was that the label invited me to do it," he tells Spinner. "I don't know if I would have taken it on myself. It's one of those things that is easy to procrastinate because it's a little daunting. It's a rite of passage because there are so many solo piano albums." [Ed. note: See a list of Iyer's favorite solo piano albums below]
The album covers a lot of ground, featuring three previously unrecorded tunes from Iyer as well as 'Desiring,' which appeared on 2003's Blood Sutra in a different arrangement. Whereas many jazz musicians focus more on the playing of music or improvising, Iyer repeatedly talks about building musical ideas and structures and then fleshing out details.
"It isn't about melody and chords," Iyer says of composing. "It's about every element of the music from the bottom up: How to fill up the sonic space; how to orchestrate; and how to guide the audience through the musical experience. You are trying to trace out a landscape where there is contrast and a wide range of possibility because you don't want it all to sound the same."
The result is Iyer's singular piano language that can be broadly lyrical or even whimsical one moment and then next turn inscrutable with an almost mathematical precision to it (the track 'Autoscopy' comes to mind here). His versatility serves him well, giving him a strong rhythmic thrust regardless of the terrain.
This all becomes clearer on the choices of covers that Iyer includes on Solo. The album opens with a wholly un-ironic take on 'Human Nature' from Michael Jackson's 'Thriller.' Here, Iyer embraces the song's melody as if recalling a fond childhood memory. If jazz records still had singles, this would surely be one, but that may make it seem like an odd choice for a critically-acclaimed artist to lead off an album, instead of, say, the artier deconstructed take on Thelonious Monk's 'Epistrophy,' which is track two.
Iyer included a mix of pop tunes, jazz standards and originals on 'Historicity,' but it's a little different throwing a popular song out there first as opposed to burying it further into the album. According to Iyer, "I was concerned about including 'Human Nature' as the first song, but it's actually a really nice way to step into the pool. It guides you in gradually and then you are in it. I was concerned at first that it would be perceived as a gimmick, an exploitive thing that makes the most out of Michael Jackson's death. But when I listened to it in the sequence that we used I realized it is what it is. It feels OK as long as you don't fixate on the why of it."
Other covers include a thoughtful and ranging version of the standard 'Darn That Dream' and a new take on Steve Coleman's 'Games.' There is also a pair of Duke Ellington tunes, including a slow building version of 'Black and Tan Fantasy' that maintains a strong element of stride piano as well as a dark brooding take on 'Fleurette Africaine,' which is a somewhat obscure tune by the master.
Overall, 'Solo' is an excellent and well-rounded rite of passage that can sit proudly next to the rest of the Iyer catalog. Yet in completing this project, the biggest breakthrough wasn't in the music but a shift in the musician himself.
"I had to kind of get past all the ego stuff and just think about making an album that feels good and sounds good," Iyer explains. "One that ebbs and flows and gets somewhere. It's a little hard when it's all you and you don't have perspective or anything else to latch onto in the music but yourself. There's nowhere to hide."
A list of some of some of Vijay Iyer's favorite solo piano albums.
Randy Weston -- 'Blues to Africa'
Andrew Hill -- 'Verona Rag'
Sun Ra -- 'St. Louis Blues' and 'Solo Piano'
Thelonious Monk -- 'Solo Monk'
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