Tuesday, October 19, 2010


Lucerna Music Bar
October 18

Making a golden debut, from left, Crump, Gilmore and Iyer.

When the band is covering Bud Powell, Michael Jackson and Andrew Hill with equal fluency between sophisticated original numbers, you know you’re watching something special. Not to mention a Steinway onstage at down-and-dirty Lucerna, surely a first.

The Vijay Iyer Trio lived up to their billing and more in their Prague debut, a nearly three-hour performance of old and new material, including selections from Iyer’s new release Solo. These boys – Iyer on piano, Marcus Gilmore on drums and Stephan Crump on stand-up bass – know their jazz and their jazz history, and can flat-out play. Their combined sound is a shifting landscape of inventive rhythm, phrases and exploration, and their solos sing.

Iyer came out like a student on vacation, in a sweater vest and high-top tennies, casual in his manner and very chatty with the audience. He started most of the songs with quiet piano solos, Gilmore and Crump joining in gradually with lead lines of their own. They rarely played conventional rhythm backing; Gilmore, a smart and talented drummer, seemed to never dash off the same riff twice in a row, and Crump, a composer who is like a one-man orchestra on the bass, did everything but play rhythm.

What’s amazing is how well this all jells. Though each member of the trio is working his own ideas in the time signature, which often changes during the course of a song, their combined sound is seamless, like a set of interlocking puzzle pieces. The overall effect is music that seems to hover on the edge between structure and improvisation, never quite floating away, but never settling into a predictable pattern, either.

This gives Iyer an incredible amount of freedom, which he takes full advantage of. His melodic flights soar so far and high that if you walked into the room in the middle of songs like Michael Jackson’s Human Nature and Stevie Wonder’s Big Brother, you would never recognize them. And there’s no pinpointing Iyer’s approach, which can veer from free jazz one minute to stride piano the next. He’ll run an idea up and down the keyboard for a couple minutes, pause over a single note or phrase to consider his next move, or let the other players get in a few licks, then run off in an entirely different direction.

A lot of the group’s freshness comes from their playing style, which is replete with thoughtful breaks and sudden attacks. Their music is as much about what notes aren’t being played as those that are. It’s like a mosaic or fractal pattern, with many small, shifting accents, pauses and melodic lines forming a cohesive and satisfying whole. Very sophisto fare, and all the more remarkable for remaining so accessible.

There’s no pretense, either, despite the group’s star status in the States. Iyer got up from the encore shaking his hands, which got more than a good night’s workout. And after the lights came up, Gilmore and Crump returned to the stage to pack up their own equipment. Amazingly, only one fan came up with a CD for them to sign.

Jazz bands rarely attract big audiences, but the way this trio plays and presents themselves, they’ll have a devoted following before long here, too.

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