State of the Arts Blog

Vijay Iyer, an American treasure

When Vijay Iyer begins to create at the piano, the sounds that emerge change space and time.

Much like the jazz master Thelonious Monk, Iyer takes an unconventional approach, fusing rich and dissonant chords and harmonies with altered timing. In a sense, he is creating an artful noise.

Iyer's lush playing during a Thursday night concert at the Walker Art Center left no doubt as to why he's considered an emerging American treasure, a pianist who carries on his genre's storied past, but in a way that reflects his time and experiences.

In an aptly titled program "The Sound of Surprise," the affable Iyer is appearing for two nights at the Walker, where he performed several years ago. The pianist returns to the Walker tonight for a different program that includes poet and electronic artist Mike Ladd, and the group Tirtha, featuring Nittan Mitta on tabla drums and Prasanna on guitar.

Iyer, 40, called Thursday night's show "one of the most humbling experiences of my life."

Delivering an expansive repertoire of standards, pop tunes and original compositions, Iyer and his fellow performers hooked the audience with virtuosity, emotion and vision. Its surprises began to emerge in the opening notes of the pianist's inventive 30-minute collaboration with stellar trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith, whom he performed with for six years.

With Iyer playing a grand piano and Fender Rhodes and employing computerized effects and recorded beats, the duo showed what is possible when artists begin an expansive conversation in which they play off each other's statements, weaving layered textures and moments of silence into their improvisations.

To watch Iyer play is to see him replay his process of discovery, stretching his mind and fingers to explore new possibilities and free-flowing ideas while delivering percussive licks. Smith's artful breaths, wails and melodic flourishes took concert-goers on a floating ride.

From there, the largely self-taught pianist moved on to an impressive body of work from three stellar records: "Historicity," a 2009 work by his trio; "Solo," from 2010; and "Accelerando," his trio's soon-to-be released album on Act Records.

Iyer delivered a master class in improvisation on solo piano, introducing fragments of melody and engaging listeners emotionally before exploring his themes with artful repetition and variations. His playing on the Monk tune "Work" was a nod not just to history and his musical hero, but also to the master's enduring legacy.

On his own tune "Spellbound, Sacrosanct, Cowrie shells and the Shimmering Sea," Iyer showed imagination and his intense musical vocabulary, including arpeggios, rich chords and sparking runs. "Autoscopy," a song that refers to an out of body experience, was just that for listeners. From above, one could see how he attacked the piano, delivering rumbling lines and classical stirrings that conveyed action and movement. It was dizzying to watch.

But Iyer perhaps saved his best work for his acclaimed trio, which includes bassist Stephan Crump and drummer Marcus Gilmore. Together, they delivered a mix of complementing - and contrasting - rhythms and harmonies.

Launching into the title track from "Accelerando," a recording based on dance rhythms, the musicians showed how great American music reflects the constantly accelerating tempos, beats and challenges of modern life. The tunes "Optimism" and "Lude," played back-to-back, were rooted in jazz but very modern.

Some of the trio's most intriguing work was its complex renditions of pop tunes the musicians clearly know and understand, most notably "The Star of a Story," written by Rod Temperton of the R&B group Heatwave in 1977. "Someone told me it was a slow dance tune," Iyer said afterwards. "We did something different with it." Something great.

Similarly, the group delivered a jazzy and intricate take on another pop classic, the song "Human Nature" from Michael Jackson's Thriller album. It was as good or better than the version by Miles Davis in the mid 1980s.

They closed the set with "Smokestack" a 1960s tune by pianist Andrew Hill -- and a terrific multilayered drum solo by Gillmore. His grandfather, the master drummer Roy Haynes, played on Hill's recording.

With the jazz world losing so many of its greats in recent years, it's encouraging to see vibrant performers step boldly into the creative space.

It was a night of masterful technique - and great expressiveness. Monk would be proud.