Live Jazz: The Vijay Iyer Trio, Quartet, and Sextet at Royce Hall

By Devon Wendell

Vijay Iyer has been one of the most acclaimed pianists and composers in modern jazz for over 15 years, combining be-bop influences with avante-garde jazz, classical, electronic music, and even rock and pop, in a powerful and distinctive manner.

At a CAP UCLA/Angel City Jazz Festival program at Royce Hall Sunday, Iyer performed a 90 plus minute concert with three different musical incarnations: his trio, (Vijay Iyer: piano, Stephan Crump: bass, and Marcus Gilmore on drums) quartet, (same as the trio but with Steve Coleman on alto sax), and his sextet (the quartet with the addition of Graham Haynes: trumpet, coronet, and flugelhorn, and Mark Shim on tenor sax).

Vijay Iyer

Iyer kicked off the show with his trio, performing material from his latest album Accelerando (ACT music +Vision) such as “Lude,” “Optimism”, the album’s title track, and a cover of the ‘70’s funk/Disco band Heatwave’s “A Star Of The Story.”

Iyer’s piano style was dynamic yet delicate, bringing to mind such past jazz masters as Bill Evans, Andrew Hill, and Herbie Hancock, though his compositions performed with the trio were reminiscent of Henry Mancini, Ahmad Jamal, and Thelonious Monk.

While Iyer played with fluidity and elegance, Crump and Gilmore had a more aggressive sound. Gilmore’s virtuosic drumming stood out from the first few bars.  Like Bill Evans, Iyer would immediately establish a composition’s mood with one chord, and it was with his trio that he played more tastefully.

Stephan Crump, Marcus Gilmore, Vijay Iyer

Though Iyer is considered to be more of a modern player, there were clearly some strong be-bop phrases in much of what he played with the trio.  The music was focused, and well rehearsed; though Gilmore’s brilliant and unpredictable drum skills kept the sound from being too slick and polished.

After the trio’s 30 minute set, Iyer welcomed his longtime friend and collaborator, Steve Coleman to the stage. It was fascinating how the simple addition of Coleman’s alto sax playing sonically transformed the quartet into an entirely separate entity from the trio. It was almost as if this was an entirely different group of musicians.

The quartet performed Iyer’s “Morphology” and “Habeas Corpus.” These pieces sounded a lot like Thelonious Monk’s compositions on his Columbia records from the mid-‘60’s. Coleman would refreshingly just play the melody lines while adding little flourishes within the lines instead of just looking for a spot to solo endlessly, the way Charles Rouse did with Monk.

It was with the quartet, however, that Iyer began to overplay. Coleman, Crump, and Gilmore were having a musical conversation and it felt as if Iyer’s self- indulgence was getting in the way of that communication. Crump’s sparse bass lines fused perfectly with Gilmore’s frenetic, hard-bop drumming. Though perfectly keeping within the band’s sound, Gilmore was once again the star of the group. Gilmore’s imagination and skills were endless. He would rarely repeat an idea from one bar to the next, switching from sticks to brushes effortlessly.

Completing the night’s program was Iyer’s sextet, including Graham Haynes on cornet and flugelhorn, and Mark Shim on tenor sax.  The sextet had a much more modern and piercing sound. The interplay between Coleman, Shim, and Haynes was brilliantly syncopated. The sound these three musicians created almost sounded like a DJ playing samples of sax and trumpet squeals.

“Far From Over” gave Shim and Haynes a chance to shine. Both had distinct and original styles that put even more fire under Crump and Gilmore. Unfortunately, it still seemed as if Iyer was just playing for himself, as if he was disconnected from this bigger band sound.

The most interesting exploration of the evening was the sextet’s performance of “Hood,” which was dedicated to electronic musician and composer Robert Hood. This wonderfully harrowing sound felt like something created by the bastard child of Karlheinz Stockhausen and Albert Ayler.  Iyer would switch between playing a Fender Rhodes electric piano and acoustic baby grand, playing a repetitive rhythmic pattern that eventually became hypnotic. Each instrumentalist would create dissonant sounds that would weave in and out of the grooves laid down by Crump and Gilmore.

“Good On The Ground” was a vehicle chosen to allow Gilmore some solo time. Gilmore is the 25 year old grandson of jazz drum legend Roy Haynes and it’s clear that he has inherited that brilliance. Gilmore soloed with the same bombast and melodic sense as his grandfather did behind Bird, Monk, Coltrane, and Dolphy.

The show closed with the soft ballad “Threnody.” Iyer’s playing started to lose some of the over-indulgence demonstrated with the quartet and sextet but unfortunately it was too late. That said, Iyer nonetheless proved to be a skilled and soulful pianist with a powerful and vivid flare for composition. Iyer’s trio, quartet, and sextet, each had their own individual sound, though as stellar as Crump, Coleman, Haynes, and Shim may have been, Marcus Gilmore stole the show from start to finish. At his best, he proved to be one of the most imaginative and compelling drummers in the jazz world today.

Photo courtesy of Vijay Iyer.

To read more posts, reviews and columns by Devon Wendell click HERE.

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