Vijay Iyer ‘Mutations’ (ECM) 4/5

Vijay-IyerPianist Vijay Iyer’s debut recording for ECM is very much on the cutting edge of contemporary classical and improvisational music and as such it comes with a caveat for piano jazz devotees who may be expecting an entire album of jazz oriented music as on the excellent earlier albums he recorded for ACT. Instead, the album focuses primarily on a series of suites, ten in all, that take up the majority of the listening space and collectively they make for an esoteric and, in places, chilling intellectual listening experience. This should come as no surprise since, in addition to being a fine pianist, Vijay Iyer is also the holder of a PhD in the cognitive science of music and has obviously spent a good deal of time reflecting on his art and music more generally. Matching minimalist piano, electronica and a string quartet, Iyer seems to be intent on exploring new textures as illustrated on ‘Vuln Pt. 2’ which features a gentle and gradual piano intro and the use of sound effects. This is by no means easy listening and the combination of structured passages and improvisations works in some part and not in others where the two appear to be wholly disparate elements. Indeed at times one longs for a lengthy piano solo with ‘Spellbound and Sacrosanct’ the nearest thing to a conventional jazz ballad. However, when classical and piano do come together, there are equally moments of great beauty and above all else this is a recording that requires repeated listens in order to fully digest what is going on, and even then there is still a hint of mystery in the creative process. Some might question whether classical and improvised piano can co-exist harmoniously. The pianist is determined to prove the case for and make new musical discoveries along the way. Vijay Iyer is a musician who seldom does the obvious and watching his next steps in the years to come will be one of the scene’s more enjoyable pleasures. Of note and highly unusual at that for ECM is the inclusion both of inner sleeve notes by the leader himself and a plethora of photos of the studio sessions in stark contrast with the austere and minimalist sleeves of the label. Manfred Eicher seems to have poured his heart and soul into this particular project and Iyer is another gem of a musician who should enjoy a long and fruitful career with the ever inventive label.

Tim Stenhouse