Yesterday jazz pianist and composer Vijay Iyer took his trio (Stephan Crump on bass and Marcus Gilmore on drums) to the Community Music Center (CMC) for a Concert with Conversation event. Most of the one-hour program was filled with music. Indeed, the trio took their first four selections without interruption, allowing each work to segue smoothly into its successor. This was followed by about fifteen minutes of Q&A with the audience, mostly by Iyer with a few comments by his colleagues.
There is a complexity to Iyer’s approach to jazz that is not quickly apprehended. He clearly puts considerable thought into what he does; and during the Q&A he gave the impression that he is intensely occupied with making decisions at the micro-level. At the same time, it is clear, from what he told the audience about his background, that he has been actively playing jazz since his student days; and much of that activity involved the rich community of jazz performers in the Bay Area, particularly Oakland. Thus, the musical portion of the evening definitely involved a meticulous balance between extensive theoretical thinking and equally extensive practical experience.
To some extent the complexity one encounters when listening to Iyer’s trio is in a vein similar to that of Bill Evans, who had a gift (probably studied, rather than natural) for piling embellishment upon embellishment. As a result he could start with the simplest of tunes; and, within a matter of minutes, that theme would be lost in a nebula of motifs seemingly going every which way with never with any loss of orientation. Iyer has that same capacity for richly developed embellishment, but he never really tips his hand as to what the source for all that embellishment might be. (Imagine Benjamin Britten’s “Nocturnal for John Dowland” launching itself with the most complex of variations; and then think of what would have happened had Britten decided not to converge on Dowland’s source theme at the end.)
Still, one has to wonder whether or not Iyer and his colleagues are as focused on the micro-level as he led his questioner in the audience to believe. With his interdisciplinary doctoral degree in the cognitive science of music from Berkeley, Iyer has to have a clear understanding of the limitations of bandwidth capacity: There are only so many decisions that a mere human can make “in the moment.” That is why prevailing psychological theories tend to “parse” behavior in terms of “routines;” and most cognitive theorists would argue that Iyer’s “apprenticeship” playing jazz with his betters in Oakland provided a path to his developing a portfolio of such routines. Last night’s performance revealed what he could do with those routines, but they are so far advanced from most jazz practice that one encounters that it is more difficult to recognize what those routines are.
The clearest sign of influence came when Iyer took a solo. He played a tune by Duke Ellington (without saying which one); but his approach involved what I like to call the “forced stride” style of Thelonious Monk. When we listen to Monk’s piano work, we can recognize that same attention to micro-level detail that Iyer cited; but he never lets the tune get very far away. (Monk used to tell those who played with him that improvisation must always come from the melody, rather than the harmonizing chord changes behind the melody.) Thus, he sometimes lapses into old-fashioned stride in the left hand, clearly defining the chord changes but allowing his rhythm a certain amount of eccentricity in departing from the beat. Against that off-kilter accompaniment, his right hand then picks out the tune note-by-note, almost giving the impression of intense thought before bringing down each finger. Monk must have raised any number of eyebrows with this style when he would play something familiar (and he was very fond of Ellington’s tunes); but, as a result of all the recordings we have, we now accept it as his uniquely personal approach.
Iyer also seems to have accepted it, but perhaps what he says about making detailed decisions is his way of trying to take that style to a new level. This is sure to leave the rest of us raising our eyebrows again. Fortunately, Iyer is building up his own catalog of recordings; so the “learning curve” for serious jazz listeners is likely to progress more rapidly for those who decide to follow his work.