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Some note hovering between an F and an F# hovered over the Vijay Iyer Trio during their soundcheck before their performance Saturday, January 17th at San Antonio’s Carver Community Cultural Center. Bassist Stephan Crump picked out the note, concerned it would float over the night’s show like a phantom. Drummer Tyshawn Sorey, in for Marcus Gilmore who was currently in London performing at Gilles Peterson’s Worldwide Awards (so he gets a pass), already had snark ready for Facebook later. However, the capable crew of the Carver soldiered through and solved the Case of the Wonky Mix, and a moderate, but dedicated crowd of jazz fans were among the first to hear and purchase the latest music off pianist Vijay Iyer’s Break Stuff.
The album which is very much in the same vein as Iyer’s previous groundbreaking trio albums like 2012’s Accelerando and 2009’s Historicity, captures yet again what these talented musicians could do if their genes were spliced with hummingbirds. It would seem that Break Stuff follows what could almost be considered a template for Iyer Trio albums, with its songs of interweaving polyrhythms, electronic influences expressed acoustically, and leaps in tone, shade, tenor, and pace happening on a dime, yet there are fewer covers of contemporary songs here. The album pulls from Billy Strayhorn and John Coltrane, but the original compositions are hip enough on their own to merely need inspiration from Detroit’s Robert Hood (on “Hood”) as opposed to pulling from Heatwave, Michael Jackson, or Flying Lotus like on previous albums.
The trio’s set construction involves a lot of seamless transitions into songs. This evening marked the first time ever where Break Stuff was available for sale, Iyer just received copies earlier that day, so while this audience — some dedicated modern jazz fans, some truly dedicated Carver Center season ticket holders who weren’t off off attending one of the numerous other events going on during a busy San Antonio night nestled in the middle of MLK Dream Week, a week of socially-conscious events with Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day as its focal point — may be among the first to hear this new music, the trio played in such a fluid way with songs morphing into songs that those who purchased the album that night have quite the labyrinthine path to walk determining with it and Iyer’s past works all that entailed in the hour and a half set. This is how Iyer’s live sets in the trio format tend to be, but with this new material, there was a different shade of exploration going on for the audience.
As busy as these guys can play, they’re just as great when they’re barely languishing. Crump hangs, like seriously hangs. In a music so utterly defined by precision, Crump’s pocket seems to be the last possible moment. He’s precisely imprecise. Moreso, it’s written all over his very expressive bass face. This most appreciative crowd at the Carver’s Jo Long Theater may have been listening closely and well, but they just couldn’t feel each and everyone one of these notes the way Crump was feeling them. His enthusiasm is unceasing.
The trademark sound of Iyer’s tone would have to be some constant rattling, an ongoing unsettlement that blankets the music, giving it some texture even in its quiet moments. Both Gilmore and Sorey provide this sound, but Sorey seems to entirely inhabit this musical space, long becoming accustomed to its higher altitude and decreased oxygen. He can keep vibrating through a song like “Break Stuff” with it’s simultaneous rhythms and interplay, swimmingly enough, and then Iyer and Crump will fall off in an instant and Sorey will kill, right when you least expect it. There were a few moments like these throughout the night where this occurred, each of them genuinely surprising, each of them distinct.
To be honest, it took a little bit of work getting San Antonio familiar with the work of Vijay Iyer. San Antonio is a jazz city, but it’s still steadily expanding its palate. Over the last few years, the efforts of Executive Director Yonnie Blanchette of the Carver Center and others on staff there that have done the diligence of bringing world class talent that keeps this city’s music loving community wanting more. This was Iyer’s second time to the Alamo City, his first time with the trio, and with an appreciative audience like this in a city that loves music so incredible, it shouldn’t be too hard to keep Iyer coming back.
Iyer has returned to New York for a weeklong residency at The Stone through to the 25th with collaborations with Himanshu Suri, Sorey once more, Steve Lehman, Liberty Ellman, Rafiq Bhatia, Teju Cole, Wadada Leo Smith, and many many more.
He’ll be back to San Antonio as part of Musical Bridges Around the World’s Music Without Borders: Jazz Impressions Shows with the Brentano String Quartet on Sunday, May 24.
Break Stuff is out February 10 on ECM Records. You can pre-order it on iTunes and Amazon.
Nextbop @ Art of Cool editor Anthony Dean-Harris hosts the modern jazz radio show, The Line-Up, Fridays at 9pm CST on 91.7 FM KRTU San Antonio and is also a contributing writer to DownBeat Magazine and the San Antonio Current. You should follow him on Twitter.