Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Vijay Iyer Leads a Sextet on his Latest ECM Release

This past Friday ECM released its latest album of jazz keyboardist and composer Vijay Iyer. Entitled Far From Over, this is the fifth such recording Manfred Eicher and ECM have produced with Iyer since 2014. The album is distinguished by Iyer leading a sextet featuring three horn players. Two are saxophonists, Steve Lehman on alto and Mark Shim on tenor; and Graham Haynes alternates between cornet and flugelhorn, as well as working with electronic processing. Rhythm is provided by Stephan Crump on bass and Tyshawn Sorey on drums.

This album is as stimulating as it is imaginative; but it also reminds the listener that the best jazz emerges from a combination of historical awareness and in-the-moment inventiveness. For those struck by the spelling of Haynes last name, he is, indeed, the son of drummer Roy Haynes. Haynes-the-father played with some of the most influential jazz artists of the twentieth century, including saxophonists Lester Young and Charlie Parker and pianist Bud Powell. He is now 92 and, by at least some accounts, he is still going strong.

However, when it comes to a moderately large combo going strong, while listening to the more hard-driving tracks on this album, I could not resist reflecting back on the days when John Coltrane led groups of a similar size. Coltrane’s groups always seemed to work consistently from a solid foundation of disciplined technique upon which each individual member was free to go his (or her, once Alice Coltrane took over the piano) own way. As we all know from “My Favorite Things,” he could lead a group that could turn the utterly banal into “something completely different.” Furthermore, when Coltrane wanted to be “completely different,” he could go on for some time. (The 1963 recording of “Impressions” made in Stuttgart came close to half an hour in duration; and both studio takes of “Ascension” ran for about 40 minutes.)

Iyer is not working on quite such an extreme durational scale on Far From Over, but there is much on this album that recalls how boldly adventurous jazz could be half a century ago. Furthermore, Iyer plants that flagpole of fond recollection solidly in the ground on his very first track, which, ironically (and probably accidentally), happens to be entitled “Poles.” At the same time we can appreciate how far inventiveness has advanced when Haynes (the son) extends his brass work with imaginative use of sampling-and-playback technology. Too many improvisers have fallen into a clichéd rut in their use of that technology, so it is more that gratifying to listen to Haynes demonstrate that there is still new directions that digital processing can take in a combo.

There is also a quieter elegiac side to the album in tracks such as “For Amiri Baraka” and “Threnody.” Of these two the second had a stronger personal impact. However, this may be because I was fortunate enough to listen to Baraka reading some of his writings at City Lights Booksellers & Publishers not too long before his death. My guess is that Iyer is as familiar with the essays in Black Music (which were written when Baraka was using the name LeRoi Jones) as I am; and I suspect that he and I share the opinions about the “middle-brow” expressed in the essay “Jazz and the White Critic.” Nevertheless, I found the lyricism of “For Amiri Baraka” to be a bit too sweet for a writer whose capacity for the acerbic was always right on the mark.

Still, in the context of the entire album, this is little more than a minor quibble. Of far greater significance is Iyer’s consistently imaginative approach to rhythm and the ways in which he can manage a combo of any size without slighting any of the members. For those unfamiliar with his work, Far From Over will provide an excellent “first contact” listening experience. However, given the composition of the group he has formed, there will be no shortage of new insights for those familiar with his work.

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