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The Vijay Iyer Trio at Herbst

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Last night jazz pianist and composer Vijay Iyer and his trio (Stephan Crump on bass and Marcus Gilmore on drums) gave their San Francisco Performances (SFP) recital at Herbst Theatre. Iyer is about halfway through his Artist-in-Residence tenure with SFP; and last night was the SFP debut of the trio. Those who follow this site know that the concert was preceded on Friday evening by a Concert with Conversation event at the Community Music Center (CMC), a one-hour event after which Iyer promised that his SFP concert would consist of entirely different material. That was not strictly the case; but, over the course of a one-hour-and-forty-five-minute performance without intermission, there were very few points of overlap.

Given the complexity of Iyer’s approach to both composition and performance, such overlap would have been hard to detect. Iyer has the sort of prodigious imagination that we are more likely to associate with the classical scene, to a point that many would dispute calling his style “jazzy” in any other way than the composition of his trio. The program book used the noun “polymath” to describe the breadth of Iyer’s educational background; but it also describes the breadth of his embrace of past music traditions and his capacity to synthesize those traditions into current practice.

Thus, like Johann Sebastian Bach, he tends to avoid a focus on the harmonic progressions of chord changes, preferring, instead, to let his harmonies emerge through the interplay of contrapuntal voices and his gift for managing many such voices with two hands on a single keyboard. Like Ludwig van Beethoven he tends to be more inclined towards in-depth exploration of a simple motif, rather than spinning out extended melodies. Coming closer to the present, he shares with Thelonious Monk what seems almost like a spontaneous capacity for exploring the directions in which he can take his inventions. If all this sounds hyperbolic, the fact is that there are larger-than-life qualities to Iyer’s music that can only become manageable to the listener with the familiarity of frequent exposure.

As a result of Friday’s exposure, I found myself feeling that Iyer was being a bit more playful last night than he had been at CMC. He also provided a bit more background in announcing the pieces he was performing. Given the high energy levels of most of those compositions, he may have just been giving himself more time to catch his breath. The energetic pace of the trio’s drive really did not take much of a break until well after the halfway mark with a more meditative piece called “Our Lives.” Think of how, in Charles Ives’ second (“Concord”) piano sonata, the third movement (“The Alcotts”) introduces the calming effect of some four-square homophonic harmonies after the storms of the two preceding movements. “Our Lives” was a similar moment of calm (but with a thematic vocabulary a bit more limited than what we find in Ives).

As had been the case on Friday, Iyer took a single piano solo. This time the song was “Darn That Dream.” Once again there were hints of Monk’s influence. (This tune was included in the Solo Monk album released by Columbia.) This time, however, the influence had less to do with Monk’s “forced stride” style and more with a shared desire to find new lights to shine on an old tune that everyone knows.

At the end of the evening, Iyer signed off with a witticism: “If you’ve enjoyed listening to us, then we’ve enjoyed listening to you. After all, it’s all about the listening.” Certainly all three of the musicians up on stage had well-honed skills when it came to listening to each other. Without those skills one could not have achieved the intricacies of interplay that pervaded the performance of each number. Yet I would like to believe that there was more to Iyer’s remark than coy prankishness. One could sense that, even in the moderately-large space of Herbst, this group was aware of its social engagement with its audience and could “tune” its approach to performance to that awareness. To draw upon some of my favorite terminology, this was an evening with a very rich “social dimension;” and it is entirely probable that waves of appreciation reflected back and forth between stage side and audience side.

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