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A Weekend with Vijay

Last weekend I saw one of my favorites, pianist Vijay Iyer, in two different settings. First, on Saturday in an electrified set with legendary pianist Geri Allen and trumpeter Graham Haynes at the Stone and then on Sunday a free show at the MoMA with his regular trio showcasing a new suite of music. I’ve spoken about Vijay Iyer, particularly the trio with Stephan Crump and Marcus Gilmore, before, usually in a highly laudatory fashion. I think these shows deserve  a bit of attention as well, particularly the first one, because they hint at what future Vijay output may look like. All in all, I’d say prospects look good.

The first show took place under Geri Allen’s curatorship at the The Stone. The stone is a fascinating experiment in live music created by John Zorn, one of the most dynamic figures in music that I can think of. Zorn is something of a lunatic genius whose musical output is staggering. Every genre from avant garde, free jazz of both the melodic and honking and screeching varieties, electronic music and modern classical to surf rock and exotica has seen Zorn’s touch at some point in his career. As you might imagine, not all of those genres are particularly lucrative and Zorn travels in circles of musicians and artists that can’t always find accepting spaces to perform. Enter the Stone. A totally non-profit space in Alphabet City, The Stone is dedicated to experimental music and is musician focused. The music charges, light though they are, go entirely to the musicians themselves. The club is supported entirely through donations and monthly ‘Improv Nights’ lead by Zorn himself, which basically amount to rent parties. There is no food or drink, just music.

Another interesting feature of the Stone is that the show calendar is decided entirely by ‘curatorship’. For stints of usually around 2 weeks, one artist will act as a curator for the club and invite musicians to perform. This can lead to a really interesting calendar. Sometimes there is a different set of musicians every set for both weeks, tied loosely together only by some common aesthetic attitude. Sometimes one musician will perform many nights in a row with a rotating set of other performers. That was the case this last couple of weeks, under Geri Allen’s curatorship. In addition to a number of other acts she selected to perform, Allen also  performed with a series different musicians, each unique and interesting in their own way. One night she shared the stage with bassist, violinist, poet Henry Grimes and another was a duet with Zorn himself. Unfortunately, I could only see one of these shows, but boy did it not disappoint. Geri Allen on piano was joined by Vijay Iyer on Rhodes and electronics and Graham Haynes on trumpet with occasional electronics. Vijay controlled some loops and beats over which the three musicians worked, sometimes with carefully stated melodies, but more often with spectacular improvisatory back and forths.

In instrumentation and sound the performance sometimes recalled the sound of 1969 ‘Lost Quintet’ or early 70’s Miles Davis. The multiple keyboards, including, pivotally, the Rhodes, exploring a decidedly non jazz standard groove certainly recall the Miles fascination with rock and funk and the sound of that era of Miles’ bands. So too did Graham Haynes recall the Miles sound on trumpet, either smooth and toneful on unadulterated trumpet or distorted through electronics. Yet, this trio was a much tighter affair. If the early 70’s Miles’ output is sometimes off putting to the uninitiated for tending to chaos, with a mass of different musicians all performing in only a semi-coordinated way at once, the Allen, Iyer, Haynes trio as a smaller group had a much better sense of cohesion. They played off each other, giving and taking, surging forth to make some statement and then lightening up to give someone else room to talk. With one of the keys always providing groove in addition to the electronic beats, they were free to really stretch improvisationally while keeping everything tight. I guess what I’m saying is that they may have beat Miles at his own game. The real revelation of the night was Haynes, whose electronic infused accents behind the keys impressed just as much as his melodic playing up front. His solo on the second to last song in the set drew the only round of applause in a set in which it was rarely clear who was really ‘soloing’ or when to clap. This is a group I would love to have on record or see again.

Sunday saw Vijay and his spectacular trio with Stephan Crump and Marcus Gilmore debuting a new piece, “Break Stuff”, which Vijay humorously described as being the result of naming the composition before it had actually been composed (“I just wrote down the first thing that came to my mind”) at the MoMA. “Break Stuff” is more like a suite of compositions over forty plus minutes, each revolving around a different groove , which Vijay’s commentary in the printed playbill suggests are derived from South Asian dance rhythms. It was satisfying fare, if much more expected. It delivered exactly how the Vijay Iyer trio has demonstrated it can deliver, as a vehicle for tremendous improvisational interplay and a showcase for each member of the band. They closed out the show with a handful of older compositions, including three from the recent “Accelerando”. A great show.

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