I was only able to hear a portion of the Vijay Iyer/Robert Pinsky Celebrity Series of Boston concert at Sanders Theatre Friday night — all of Iyer and Pinsky’s 40-minute “PoemJazz” set, and about 45 minutes of the Vijay Iyer Trio set.
I’m a reluctant fan of the Pinsky “PoemJazz” project. It’s a reluctance Pinsky himself acknowledged when I talked to him a couple of years ago before a PoemJazz show at the Regattabar: “I can always see that people are afraid it’s going to be embarrassing.”
Nonethless, a fan I became — of Pinsky and of PoemJazz — after seeing that Regattabar show with pianist Laurence Hobgood (who has recorded PoemJazz with Pinsky). For PoemJazz, Pinsky wasn’t looking for impressionistic musical responses to his texts. He wanted to perform the poems as true musical duets (he is a former aspiring jazz saxophonist). The text of the poem become a lead sheet, and Hobgood told me he reads ahead as he listens to Pinsky’s words, devising chord sequences. There are piano introductions, cued entrances and exits, piano solos (breaks for a bar or two or sometimes the equivalent of a chorus or half-chorus), and Pinsky fiddles with his own texts, using repetition as a song-like device. Poetic form becomes musical form in these performances.
My first impression at the show on Friday night was that Iyer was maybe a bit more deferential to Pinsky than he had to be. At the Regattabar, Hobgood often played busy lines at full volume, challenging Pinsky to deliver like a saxophone. For the first piece at Sanders, Iyer’s sophisticated noodling was laid back. (It was Pinsky’s saxophone poem, “Horn”: “This is the golden trophy”). As with Hobgood, “Antique” was played as a blues, with a bit of walking bass (“I drowned in the fire of having you, I burned/In the river of not having you . . . .”)
Despite Iyer’s more impressionistic approach, the pieces had form — as they had with Hobgood. A good musician, Pinsky knows how to count as he plays, and he knew where to leave room for a piano break, where to repeat a line like a refrain. I think the most successful pieces for me were those where Iyer deployed a laptop along with the Sanders Steinway. (“This one’s a trio,” Pinsky said before they played the first laptop number. The laptop variously conjured basslines, pattering tablas, or ambient clicks and scrapes and hisses. The most effective piece for me was “Refinery,” the central image being that of a California oil refinery lit up at night (“the most beautiful thing I saw,” Pinsky said of his time in California). Here, Iyer’s drifting chromatic lines created an appropriately cinematic effect with Pinsky’s words (“The great Refinery — a million bulbs tracing/Its boulevards, turrets, and palisades.”)
Iyer’s playing was never less than interesting and Pinsky’s commitment was total. And, as the poet Tony Hoagland is quoted on the back of Pinsky’s Selected Poems (FSG), he is “a much stranger poet than is generally acknowledged.” Pinsky lives in Cambridge and teaches at B.U., and he introduced the piece “House Hour” by talking about his love for old working-class neighborhoods in Cambridge and Somerville. Looking at them, for him, is like “Wordsworth looking at a lake.” Dressed in university-poet blazer and tie, he sometimes performed with his hands in his pockets or held behind his back, and he held nothing back in delivering the full yawp of his lines. “Antique” is not what I’d call a funny poem, but I’ve heard Pinsky perform it twice, and both times he’s gotten a laugh with “Someday far down that corridor of horror the future/Someone who buys this picture of you for the frame. . . .”
I can’t comment fully on Iyer’s performance with his trio because, like I say, I heard only a portion of it. Iyer, bassist Stephan Crump, and drummer Marcus Gilmore played beautifully, avoiding any obvious grooves or straight meters. There was one lovely ballad that sounded as though it might turn into “Misty” but didn’t. The forms were odd, too, with Crump sometimes holding things down with recurring short patterns, the band falling into cadence and unison lines at unpredictable points. I was most struck by an old-fashioned “process” piece — of the likes of Reich or Glass or maybe Feldman — that built layers of repetitive rhythmic patterns and a continually rising crescendo over the course of (by my count) nearly 15 minutes, coming to a hard-stop climax with a mighty thwack from Gilmore. It got a huge ovation from the crowd. Iyer said it was called “Hood” for the electronic musician Robert Hood.
About midway through the 45 minutes that I heard, I grew a bit restless, as all the odd-metered hooh-hah began to take on a sameness. I recalled years ago seeing Brad Mehldau’s great trio with bassist Larry Grenadier and Jorge Rossy at Jordan Hall. I invited a friend to join me — someone who had been a huge Mehldau fan. But he said he’d been feeing emotionally disengaged from Mehldau’s playing lately — all the complex odd and mixed meters, he told me. But he joined me anyway and, lo and behold, Mehldau played some straight-time swing, a bolero (by Charlie Haden), a couple of waltzes.
Jazz these days — from Mehldau and Robert Glasper to Mary Halvorson and Taylor Ho Bynum — is pursuing new paths in rhythmic invention. And some of it really does groove in a beautifully fucked-up way (catch Glasper live with the drummers Mark Colenburg or Chris Dave or Rudresh Mahanthappa with bassist Rich Brown). I think in live performance more than on record you really do need some groove, if only for the sake of variety and a bit of ear-refreshment.
In any case, I’d love to hear from anyone who caught the rest of the Iyer trio’s performance after “Hood.” Iyer announced that he was about to play a solo piece when I left. What else did he and the band play? And, by the way, my exit had nothing to do with my feelings about the performance. Sometimes there are just other places you have to be.
POST SCRIPT: A set list from Iyer’s management (via the Celebrity Series) indicates that Iyer followed “Hood” with a solo piano performance of Billy Strayhorn’s “Blood Count.” Too bad I missed that one, would have loved to have heard it. And Pinsky returned for a performance of his poem “Ginza Samba” (“A monosyllabic European called Sax/Invents a horn. . . . “).