Vijay Iyer, Break Stuff

With Break Stuff, his third trio album and his first on the ECM label, Vijay Iyer comes into his own as a master pianist, composer, and conceptualizer—one of the truly great jazz musicians of our time.

It's his 19th album overall (as soloist and leader or co-leader of various ensembles), and you can hear the evolution. There's a schematic edge to Iyer's music, stemming perhaps from his education in math, physics, and cognitive sciences; he has long experimented with numerical patterns in his music (Steve Coleman is a key influence), and in some of his early work, you could hear the interlocking wheels spinning or grinding: at times, it was intriguing but (at least to me) not so involving.

This is what's been changing in his music the past few years (and I suspect I'd hear it happening for much longer, if I went back and listened): it's no less head-popping intricate, but it doesn't sound as if he's working at it; it's become second nature to him, he's breathing it, and he's infusing it, seamlessly, with rhythm, soul, wit, beauty. He has a staggering (but, again, thoroughly natural) sense of time and moment—monumentality, when he wants it (as I wrote in an earlier blog, he could have been a world-class interpreter of Liszt or Ligeti, had he chosen to go that direction). And he can also caress a ballad: listen, for instance, to his jagged heartbreak solo of Strayhorn's "Blood Count"—and that song, composed while undergoing cancer treatment, demands a jagged heartbreak).

Iyer's trio—including bassist Stephan Crump and drummer Marcus Gilmore—has also advanced as a group: they weave in and out of patterns, sometimes in synch, sometimes in counterpoint or more inventive connections. Listen to how the minimalism of "Taking Flight," one of the album's nine original pieces, suddenly swoops into something like a funk groove, then levels back to bare bones, while never losing the flavor of either.

They also tackle Monk's "Work" in a slightly funhouse concave reflection and Coltrane's "Countdown" fused with a West African drumming style.

Several of the original compositions began life as longer pieces, written for suites or soundtracks or vocal or dance recitals, which Iyer has broken down into trio arrangements—hence the album title, which is also the title of one of its tracks, which itself is broken down from a larger piece of the same name. In one of ECM's promotion sites, he's quoted as defining "break" as "an empty space in which things can happen—it has this feeling of potential that I like, and it falls on the listener to complete it."

This isn't background music (though I suppose you could use anything that way). It demands attention, but it's not "hard" or esoteric either; once you lean its way, you'll be riveted.

James Farber recorded the proceedings with his customary vivid vibrance.

cgh's picture

I've been a fan of Iyer for a long time. I noticed a departure between his live / composing work and his catalog several years ago. This disconnect snapped back into focus with his last album, his first with Eicher, Mutations. Vijay is excellent. He's also been heavily influenced by Monk. He's forging his own path as he becomes more mature musically. His latest work has been sparse, minimal, electronic, and non-linear.

Allen Fant's picture

I have come to enjoy your Jazz posts -FK. The last few Iyer CDs have been outstanding!