Vijay Iyer Trio – Break Stuff

break stuff(ECM 470 8937)

Wayne Shorter once told an interviewer: I don’t play the words; I play the punctuation marks. Or that was the gist of it. The New York pianist Vijay Iyer, it might be argued, works a variation on this idea with this new album from his long-standing trio with double bassist Stephan Crump and drummer Marcus Gilmore.

Explaining the album’s title, Iyer says it reflects what happens after the formal elements of the music have been addressed. The “break” is “a span of time in which to act. It’s the basis for breakdowns, break-beats and break dancing… it can be the moment when everything comes to life.”

Some of the pieces on the album are from a Break Stuff suite first heard at MOMA in New York, some are taken from a collaboration with Teju Cole, author of Open City a novel about New York – these pieces have the names of birds and are used in the book to symbolise migration, immigration, alternative perspectives of the city – the city’s punctuation, perhaps. Taking Flight is a master class in piano touch and chord voicing; Geese has some particularly fine playing from Stephan Crump.

Then there are three songs by other composers: Thelonious Monk’s Work, a complex piece, irregular even by Monk’s standards and which suits this trio a treat, Gilmore exploring every nuance of his brushed cymbals; Billy Strayhorn’s final composition, Blood Count, which Iyer does as a solo – and exquisitely; and John Coltrane’s Countdown, which finds the trio in almost conventional piano trio territory.

Mostly they sound like no other piano trio. The hip-hop influences are so well integrated and disguised they might not be recognised by the hip-hoppers themselves. Other influences on this band include Ahmad Jamal’s trios, Duke Ellington’s Money Jungle album, Jimi Hendrix’s Band Of Gipsys, and the rhythm sections of Charlie Parker, Miles Davis and James Brown.

The track Hood is a tribute to DJ Robert Hood, a Detroit techno producer, and it’s an extraordinary piece, so stripped back that Iyer is left with a set of subtly changing, repeating chords in the minimalist tradition while Crump works a similarly simple riff underneath and Gilmore plays more complex but still space filled patterns, the whole thing being a constantly shifting set of spaces and fills.

Even at their most romantic – the introduction to Chorale, for example – this is not a band overly driven by poetry and song; what excites them more are those other beauties: of the maths equation, of the architectural space, of the complexities of time.

A compelling, stimulating, challenging and strangely addictive listen.



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