thu 07/07/2022

Vijay Iyer and Rudresh Mahanthappa, Vortex | reviews, news & interviews

Vijay Iyer and Rudresh Mahanthappa, Vortex

Vijay Iyer and Rudresh Mahanthappa, Vortex

Jazz duo triumphantly mix cerebral and lyrical

I was promised a night of free jazz. This was more a threat than a promise, having spent some of the worst nights of my life listening to the stuff - the strange thing about this most liberating sounding form is how everyone sounds more or less the same. Anyway, this wasn’t a night of wibbly-wobbly squeaky-gate music, but a fully realised, if sometimes chilly, vision. It was spontaneous architecture and interesting structures and lyricism. It was original without being self-conscious about it.
You can tell a lot about a jazzer by what they call the tunes. With no vocals there’s a lot of scope for titles to give away where your head is at, man. Vijay Iyer’s last album was called Historicity – tracks included "Helix", "Trident:2101", "Smoke Stack" and "Galang" (originally by M.I.A, the British-Asian performer who, like Iyer has a Tamil background - see videos below), science, a bit of politics, a hint of academic theory and a chic pop reference. The cover was an Anish Kapoor sculpture, a British-Asian with a similar sense of space, coolness and ambition.

Geoff Dyer in his book But Beautiful floated the notion that jazz having run into a cultural cul-de-sac may well be rescued by artists with other cultural reference points outside Europe and the States. In the same way that the world’s economy is supposed to be lifted by the expanding BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India and China) the same thing would happen to jazz. In fact, some postgrad who wishes he was funkier than he is may well be writing a thesis on how cultural centres shift, or don't, along with financial centres. Good Marxist knockabout stuff.

Both pianist Iyer and alto saxist Mahanthappa are based in New York but have family roots in South India, whose Carnatic music has some of the most intense rhythmic musicians in the world. Even the place names have complex rhythms like Thiruvananthapuram, the new name for Trivandrum (which was just too easy to say for the tourists) and there were hints of South Indian rhythms and scales throughout. But Iyer also spent 15 years studying classical music (impressively, self-taught) and has a doctorate in physics, while Mahanthappa has studied music in India – and there were times his sax wailed like a Temple shenai, the thick-toned oboe-like instrument that can sound somehow both soft and apocalyptic.

The classical elements from Iyer’s education were to the fore with as many echoes of Ravel or even Mompou as either Indian or jazz elements. Every now and then you’d get a whiff of a Keith Jarrett lyricism or McCoy Tyner percussive toughness but in fact Iyer has carved out some new territory and harmonic colours here, as Dyer predicted. While Dyer goes big on North Africans like Rabih Abou-Khalil, rather than Indians, the thought occurred that whoever gets to film his latest novel Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi could do a lot worse than hire Iyer to do the soundtrack. The book features a cosmopolitan hipster who cracks up in India, while retaining a surface cool, just as Iyer’s music regularly disintegrates only to re-assert its cerebral hipness. There was hardly any communication with the audience, Miles Davis style. Unlike Miles, Iyer didn't actually turn his back on the (packed) audience, but that may just be because shifting a Steinway round mid-gig is too difficult.

Iyer is a guy who regularly writes for academic publications like Current Musicology, Critical Studies in Improvisation and the Journal of Consciousness Studies. If Jazz started in the brothels of New Orleans, with Iyer it has ended up in the common rooms of New England. Fats Waller he ain’t and there wasn’t much misbehavin’ going on.  But there is room in the broad church of Jazz for both dirt and sleaze and high-mindedness. As it happens, Iyer's own music is often more suffused with hip-hop or funk, as in the example "Galang", below.

The two have an easy relationship, of friends carrying on where they left off in a chess game perhaps, or just mid-conversation, even if the subject matter may be a startling one. They have collaborated intermittently for more than ten years (a 2006 album called Raw Materials is well worth investigating). Last night, Mahanthappa’s sax often kept returning to a repeated base note or rhythm before wondering all over the place like a hermit with rocket up his backside. Iyer rarely lost control, but is more generously expressive than the hermetic style of Brad Mehldau, who must be his only serious competitor in the modern introspective jazz piano stakes right now.

Video, below, Galang by Vijay Iyer

The original tune by M.I.A.

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