While jazz is often intent on exploring the excellent mistakes made when improvising in the moment, Harvard professor and renowned pianist Vijay Iyer takes an unorthodox approach to that concept with his latest album.
On Break Stuff, the Vijay Iyer Trio's first release on ECM Records, Iyer chooses to explore those moments not in the solos, but in the breaks.
If the trio’s playing on Break Stuff seems stuck at times, that’s the point: the album was created out of the desire to focus on the break -- the drum breaks in funk and soul records that provided the soundtrack to Bronx block parties in the '70s when DJs like Kool Herc pioneered beat-juggling, much to the audience’s pleasure. Iyer also references the importance of the drum break (the famous “Amen Break,” in particular) as the stylistic centerpiece for the electronic style of jungle, better known now as drum 'n' bass. By honing in on repeated phrases, the group focuses on maintaining a groove as a whole rather than shifting focus from solo to solo.
The concept follows Iyer’s pattern of reimagining unorthodox music within a jazz framework. Much like past explorations on Michael Jackson’s “Human Nature” or M.I.A.’s “Galang,” he and his trio provide a nod toward their vast array of influences on “Hood,” a tribute to Detroit techno heavyweight Robert Hood.
Their acoustic take, which inhabits and inverts the Hood track “Minus,” is a great example of the group’s tight sense of rhythm. With the original melodies subscribing to different time signatures, the recording can be disorienting even with just its handful of elements. In Iyer’s hands, the track shines between beats. Five and a half minutes in, the track builds to a satisfying crescendo, aided by an added tension of exploring the nuances in the seemingly simple composition.
Not that Iyer is blind to jazz history, mind you. In addition, the album features compositions by John Coltrane (“Countdown”), Thelonious Monk (“Work”) and Billy Strayhorn (“Blood Count”).
Vijay Iyer Trio's performance this week at the SFJAZZ Center -- their debut at the venue -- comes as part of ECM Fest, a four-night series of performances from the celebrated jazz label founded in 1969 by German producer Manfred Eicher. In addition to Iyer's performance, the series features shows with Chris Potter’s Underground Orchestra, Egberto Gismonti, and Tomasz Stanko.