by Ryan Wasoba
Vijay Iyer Trio Jazz at the Bistro
Those who missed Vijay Iyer Trio's opening night at Jazz At The Bistro are lucky. Since the group is playing two sets nightly for four evenings, what felt like a once in a lifetime event will actually occur eight times. Most show reviews are written about something that won't happen again, but there is a future contingency here. If you are a jazz enthusiast, a fairweather fan, a curious listener, or even a naysayer looking to be proven wrong, go to the Bistro tonight, tomorrow, or Saturday. I'm not going to say please.
The turnout for the trio's early set was modest; surprisingly, the second set was even more sparse, mostly stay-overs from the first. This contributed to a specific energy in the room, the visceral enjoyment of the music mixed with the feeling that something artistically important was happening. I have never felt the latter half of this vibe so strongly at a jazz show, and it gave me chills, as though I was watching Monk or Cecil Taylor at a 3 a.m. Harlem jam session.
The excitement had much to do with the fact that it was the trio's first performance since its incredible album Accelerando dropped. One of the record's standouts, an arrangement of "The Star Of A Story" by Heatwave was a highlight of the 7:30 set. Drummer Marcus Gilmore's complicated funk beats were mesmerizing, with kicks landing slightly ahead of the beat in a lopsided fashion that truly felt like a chopped and assembled loop from a J Dilla track performed in real time.
Gilmore's sensitivity behind the kit is astounding. In addition to his propulsive, interactive playing, he demonstrates complete control over the many timbres possible with a limited drum set. Particularly impressive was his drastic muting of the snare drum after rimshots - almost sounding like the gated reverb that defined '80s drum sounds. He constantly shuffled around pieces of his kit, stacking cymbals on top of each other, retuning his toms for different tones mid-song. I could have exclusively watched his hi-hat for hours. Bassist Stephan Crump also explored his pallet with an especially impressive bow technique, conjuring squiggly harmonics from the upper upper register of the upright bass (meaning his left hand fingers were inches from the instrument's bridge). When he soloed, the room became whisper quiet. The only voice heard was Crump's as he scatted along with his melodies.
Gilmore and Crump were visually captivating, but Vijay Iyer was the obvious ringleader. His playing is sometimes referred to as knotty or jagged, which undermines his warm touch and approachability at the piano. His improvisations did not feel like solos, they came off like he was egging on his collaborators. On the relatively straightforward "Wildflower," Iyer was downright mischievous, like he was poking Gilmore and Crump to see how they would react. The trio focused mainly on Iyer's compositions during both sets. In fairness, even the group's covers are arranged so uniquely they sound like originals. Nearly every tune is built from a unique rhythmic pattern, and sometimes it appeared that the trio was improvising into the ether until it landed upon a unison hit or melody too tightly knit to not be premeditated. If I were to complain about anything, it would be the songs that were missing from the sets: "Accelerando," "Human Nature," "Galang." But given the one hour set time, and the fact that there will be six other performances, there is plenty of time for those cuts to surface.
The Vijay Iyer Trio's opening night was an eye opener and a jaw dropper. Usually, show reviews are limited by the principle of "you had to be there." This time, you still can be there. Vijay Iyer spoke very little into the microphone between songs, but he said the same mantra as final words for both sets: "Keep listening."
Personal Bias: As a jazz school dropout, I have not been as excited about a current jazz artist as I am about Vijay Iyer. Despite all my drooling over his music in the RFT as of late, I have still consciously not nerded out as hard as I'd like to. This dude rules.
Random Detail: Vijay Iyer looks much younger than his 41 years.
Overheard: "Beautiful!" in that short silence between the end of a song and beginning of the applause.