After releasing the album Uneasy on ECM in 2021, presenting him for the first time at the head of a prestigious trio composed of double bassist Linda May Han Oh and drummer Tyshawn Sorey, pianist and composer Vijay Iyer continues with Compassion his association with these two talented partners.
The New York Times at the time reported on the particular qualities of this group, particularly highlighting its ability to produce a collective discourse “of luminous clarity and great flexibility and range of movement… while constantly stirring up a kind of dull internal tension. It is in their incredible ability to connect with each other in an almost telepathic way that the three musicians find the secret of this singular balance.”
In Compassion (his eighth ECM album as a leader), Vijay Iyer persists in his desire to explore new territories while making multiple nods throughout to his masters – including two prestigious musicians closely associated with the label . The album thus features a powerful rendition of Stevie Wonder’s theme “Overjoyed,” which Iyer plays here as a sort of indirect homage to the late Chick Corea; as well as a swirling version of the piece “Nonaah,” composed by the old avant-garde sage Roscoe Mitchell, another great mentor of the pianist.
Most of the repertoire is also made up of the pianist’s own compositions, all more melodically seductive and rhythmically stimulating — ranging from the meditative title theme “Compassion, to much more energetic and catchy pieces like “Tempest” and “Ghostrumental.” The album was produced by Manfred Eicher and Vijay Iyer.
I saw the concert of this trio at the Tbilisi Jazz Festival and enjoyed it ․․․
Vijay Iyer, Linda May Han Oh, Tyshawn Sorey. For a former Yale maths graduate fascinated by the metrical labyrinths of South Indian Carnatic music, the prolific Tamil-descended American pianist and composer Vijay Iyer is pretty nonchalant about letting his bands loose with the sketchiest of plans.
Partnerships with unpredictable outcomes have driven him since the mid-1990s, whether in post-bop, free jazz, classical music, or projects with film-makers, poets and choreographers, while his composing has been influenced by legends from Thelonious Monk to Stevie Wonder. Its intuitive intimacy goes back to its formation in 2014 at Canada’s Banff International Workshop in Jazz and Creative Music, where Iyer, Malaysia-born bassist Linda May Han Oh and American multi-instrumentalist and composer Tyshawn Sorey have since reconvened annually.
“It was really on the cusp of, well, the rest of everything,” Iyer, a pianist and composer of exceptional renown. “I’m really glad to have this document of what we used to be, and what we will be again. This is a reminder of what’s possible: how we can be together, how we can move together, how we can build something together.”
In the last decade, Vijay Iyer slipped the bonds of being just another jazz pianist in a crowded field of great musicians. The first sentence of his Wikipedia entry quotes the New York Times calling him a “social conscience, multimedia collaborator, system builder, rhapsodist, historical thinker and multicultural gateway”. How does anyone live up to that kind of hype?
Iyer’s various projects, remarkably, reflect that range. He has scored films; written for ballet and for the “classical” concert hall; collaborated with Mike Ladd on poetry/hip-hop work; worked with leading figures in the New Jazz such as Roscoe Mitchell, Wadada Leo Smith, and Steve Coleman; and led or co-led bands of improvising musicians that have included Fieldwork (with saxophonist Steve Lehman and drummers Elliot Humberto Kavee or Tyshawn Sorey), a quartet (with saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa), a longstanding trio (with bassist Stephan Crump and drummer Marcus Gilmore), and a recent sextet (including Crump, Sorey, Lehman, and two other horns). Amidst all of that, he has found time for duo projects with Smith and pianist Craig Taborn and a variety of curation projects. After starting his adult life with an undergraduate Yale degree in math and physics and then a Ph.D. in technology and the arts at Berkeley, well, you get the sense that you never know in which direction Iyer will move.
Iyer is in an unmistakably retrospective mood, with nearly all the compositions on the program drawn from various sources across his career, formats, and influences. The result is a set of modern piano jazz that covers a remarkable range and features three brilliant musical imaginations that play well together.
The trio has little trouble covering all the elements of the composition, as it is simple in one sense: build on a single basic riff or cell that swirls around on itself, defining a very unusual time signature that nevertheless grooves with authority. But, of course, it also comes to sound devilishly complex because the time feeling around which the lick wraps and weaves are constantly being flipped in the air and toyed with joyously by Sorey. Iyer’s opening improvisation chatters in the treble clef and crashes into the groove down low, suggesting a McCoy Tyner lineage—with swirls and bombast in contrast, but then much lighter moments as well.
The form of “Configurations” is traditional at first: a bold solo by the leader is followed by a bass solo played over a much quieter set of pulses played by Iyer’s highest keys and Sorey’s brushes. Then Iyer and Sorey trade statements, just like a traditional band “trading fours” toward the end of a jazz performance. To end things, however, the band not only restates the theme but also makes time elastic, slowing it down, speeding it up, changing it slightly but in perfect coordination. It is dazzling – seeming to give the listener every chance to really understand it even though, honestly, I dare you.
Not that this group insists on always working as a New Jazz bafflement machine, hiding the downbeat in a swirl of fancy compositional footwork.
For listeners looking for something closer to tradition, there are two compositions here by other composers, and each trades in a bit more in something close to common time that, still, this band can pull and push in playful ways.
Vijey Iyer’s hyperalert new trio, with Linda May Han Oh on bass and Tyshawn Sorey on drums. And with compositions drawn from across Iyer’s creative output — including “Configurations,” one of his earliest known pieces.
In the conversation with us, Vijay Iyer promised to create a new work based on the impressions he received from Tbilisi. And it is probably not accidental, because at the end of their concert on the last day of the Tbilisi Jazz Festival 2022, he played music with a Georgian rhythm.
Tyshawn Sorey played so enthusiastically that several times he had problems with the cymbal, it would either was over the drum or rotate the opposite side, but nothing prevented him from leaving the track halfway, stopping the concert in the middle of the performance. He played under any circumstances.
- 1. Compassion
- 2. Arch
- 3. Overjoyed
- 4. Maelstrom
- 5. Prelude: Orison
- 6. Tempest
- 7. Panegyric
- 8. Nonaah
- 9. Where I Am
- 10. Ghostrumental
- 11. It Goes
- 12. Free Spirits/Drummer’s Song
Vijay Iyer: piano
Linda May Han Oh: double bass
Tyshawn Sorey: drums