Vijay Iyer Solo Review

Album. Released 2010.  

BBC Review

The pianist, both disciple and unruly pupil of Monk, relishes flying solo.

Phil Smith 2010

The solo studio album has become a rite of passage in the jazz pianist’s recording career, ever since big band and then bebop brought combo playing to the fore. Thelonious Monk, Andrew Hill and Cecil Taylor – to name but three of the idiom’s outstanding solitary improvisers – had a dozen ensemble recordings under their variously-sized belts before going solo. Fourteen years on from his debut as leader, Vijay Iyer joins the club with a characteristic blend of tasteful tribute and exciting unorthodoxy.

The original compositions on Solo reflect Iyer’s immersion in the improvised music of his adopted New York. Autoscopy touches every inch of the keyboard in a restless opening fantasia that, with the help of flowing left hand triplets, transitions somehow seamlessly into the sound-world of a Beethoven sonata. Patterns follows, hammering out its idée fixe (an ascending five-note motive) in different harmonic contexts under ever-varied guises.

ACT were quick to invite Iyer back into the studio following the success of last year’s Historicity, and the pianist relishes the opportunity to continue the dialogue with tradition begun on that disc. This time, though, he’s without trio-members Stephan Crump and Marcus Gilmore, and the topic of conversation centres on the genre of solo jazz piano.

Iyer is both disciple and unruly pupil of Monk, and the usually-assured melodic argument of Monk’s Epistrophy here disintegrates under the tireless interrogation of his right hand runs. Darn That Dream, meanwhile, shares the unpolished melancholy of the 1964 Solo Monk version, but – beginning with the bridge and ending unresolved – is an even more potent expression of the ambiguity at the heart of this Van Heusen-DeLange ballad (“Without that dream, I never would have you / But it haunts me and it won't come true”). In the Ellingtonian pieces, Iyer is masterful but more restrained; Fleurette Africaine rediscovers the dark beauty achieved on 1962’s Money Jungle, while in Black & Tan Fantasy, Iyer’s left hand strides respectfully along the elegant pathways of the Duke’s estate (though the right  does its best to scuff up the lawn).

At times, Iyer’s playing meanders melodically (his own Desiring frustrates in its persistent noodling around oscillating parallel chords) and comes close to cloying (the cover of Michael Jackson’s Human Nature touches on sentimental). But on the whole the energy of his attack, the variety of material presented and the fluidity of form combine to establish Iyer’s place in, as he puts it, “the stream of history”.

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