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Vijay Iyer Sextet

Far From Over

ECM 2581 567 7386 [57:53]




1. Poles 7:49

2. Far From Over 6:15

3. Nope 5:41

4. End of the Tunnel 2:17

5. Down to the Wire 7:43

6. For Amira Baraka 3:22

7. Into Action 5:00

8. Wake 4:46

9. Good on the Ground 6:32

10.Threnody 8:24

All compositions by Vijay Iyer

Graham Haynes (cornet, flugelhorn, electronics)

Steve Lehman (alto sax)

Mark Shim (tenor sax)

Vijay Iyer (piano, fender rhodes)

Stephen Crump (bass)

Tyshawn Sorey (drums)

rec. Avatar Studios, NYC, April 2017

If you still believe that all ECM discs are alike, full of an airy Nordic dreaminess, recorded in a spacious acoustic (which might once have been at least partially true), there are now many releases on the label which would soon disabuse you of that belief. This is, pre-eminently, one such.

Vijay Iyer (b. 1971) is the son of Tamil Indian parents who emigrated to the USA. Brought up in Fairport (NY), he studied classical violin between the ages of 3 and 18. He also taught himself piano. As an undergraduate he studied physics and mathematics at Yale and then began a Ph.D in Physics at the university of California in Berkeley, but his involvement in music gradually took over and in 1994 he abandoned the formal study of physics. He was later awarded a Ph.D, with a thesis entitled Microstructures of Feel, Macrostructures of Sound: Embodied Cognition in West African and African-American Musics . All of this, it is surely fair to say, makes him sound decidedly non-Nordic.

He has written several concert works in the western classical idiom which have been performed at prestigious venues. He has played (and recorded) jazz with a range of significant musicians, including Wadada Leo Smith, Steve Coleman, Butch Morris, Amina Claudine Myers, Dave Douglas, Roscoe Mitchell and Rudesh Mahanthappa. This is already his 22nd album as leader or co-leader. Having taught at the Manhattan School of Music and elsewhere, in 2014 he became Franklin D. and Florence Rosenblatt Professor of the Arts at Harvard.

The range of Iyer’s interests and gifts is remarkable. They and his high intelligence are reflected in the music on Far From Over, which is by turns tender and abrasive, angular and fluent, straightforward and highly intricate, lyrical and dissonant – often within the same track.

‘Poles’ opens with some delicate piano from Iyer, before the horns dominate proceedings and raise the intensity a good deal; things relax once more, and Haynes takes a lovely solo on flugelhorn. On ‘Far From Over’ the rhythm is immediately insistent and the front line instruments are soon involved in some turbulent and relatively ‘free’ improvised conversation, with Iyer, bass and drums stoking up a considerable fire behind them. Iyer follows with a busy and forceful piano solo and, finally, the horns return, taking the piece to its conclusion, with Tyshawn Sorey’s dums a commanding presence. ‘Nope’ is less intense, though decidedly – if obliquely – funky, full of beautifully judged ensemble effects. Like all the tracks on this album, however much room is allowed for improvisation, there is always a strong sense of compositional design and unity. On ‘Nope’, there is an excellent solo contribution by Mark Shim which, perhaps paradoxically, seems to draw more attention to the shape of the piece as a whole than it does to the soloist himself.

Other highlights include ‘For Amiri Baraka’, where the late poet, critic and activist (some may remember him as LeRoi Jones) is remembered by the trio of Iyer, Crump and Sorey, ending in a passage flavoured by R & B and the music of the Black Churches. ‘Wake’ is eloquently moody, owing something to the electric Miles Davis, but stamped right through with Iyer’s own musical identity. That same identity is evident on ‘Good on the Ground’, which begins with some forceful work by Sorey, fast becoming a major figure on his instrument, and which is informed by Indian rhythms as it develops; Iyer’s solo here is one that no other pianist I have ever heard would have played. (Iyer’s album Solo, on Act, recorded in 2010) illustrates brilliantly the range of his prodigious technique and his keyboard imagination. After a quiet opening, ‘Into Action’ is irresistible in its rhythms; if this track doesn’t make you get up and dance, or at least bob your head up and down, you are probably dead!

‘Threnody’ closes the disc, with the piano trio at the core of the band playing the last notes of the album, after the other musicians have had their say in this dignified, angry, very human assertion of lasting truths.

Far From Over , each time I listen to it, feels more and more like a suite, a suite with an important purpose. Recorded a few months into the presidency of Donald J. Trump, its thrust is clear and is made explicit in the brief note Iyer provides in the booklet: “As the arc of history lurches forward and backward, the fact remains: local and global struggles for equality, justice and basic human rights are far from over. We hope that our music both reflects this truth and offers a useful residuum that might outlast it”.

But, it must be stressed, Far From Over is a work of art (and a substantial one, at that), not of propaganda. I have listened to it something like 9 or 10 times so far, and on each occasion I have heard new things and found different thoughts and emotions stimulated. That, I reckon, is only the case with a recording destined to become an enduring ‘classic’.


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