Tag Archives: Vijay Iyer

Music Diary: Iyer and Pinsky

Vijay Iyer and Robert Pinsky at Sanders Theatre Friday night. Photo by Robert Torres. Courtesy of Celebrity Series of Boston.

Vijay Iyer and Robert Pinsky at Sanders Theatre Friday night. Photo by Robert Torres. Courtesy of Celebrity Series of Boston.

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.”)

Robert Pinsky in full yawp. Photo by Robert Torres. Courtesy of Celebrity Series of Boston.

Robert Pinsky in full yawp. Photo by Robert Torres. Courtesy of Celebrity Series of Boston.

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. . . . “).

Jazz picks this week

Ambrose Akinmusire plays the Regattabar on March 12.

Ambrose Akinmusire plays the Regattabar on March 12.

Here are some highlights of live jazz for the coming week. These and other picks for theater, dance, classical, and pop music can be found at The Arts Fuse.

 

Four Generations of Miles Davis
March 7-8, 7:30 p.m. + 10 p.m.
Regattabar, Cambridge, MA.

Four outstanding players — saxophonist Sonny Fortune, guitarist Mike Stern, bassist Buster Williams, and drummer Jimmy Cobb — are pooling their combined experience from different eras of working with Miles Davis.

Nando Michelin’s “Juana de America”
March 8, 8 p.m.; March 10, 8 p.m.
Amazing Things Arts Center, Framingham, MA [March 8] + Longy School of Music, Cambridge, MA. [March 10]

The terrific Uruguayan-born jazz pianist Nando Michelin has long been a mainstay of Boston’s jazz and Latin-jazz scenes (his “Duende” trio with drummer Richie Barshay and a pre-famous Esperanza Spalding is semi-legendary). This month, Michelin premieres a new work in a series of metro-Boston venues. The piece, “Juana de America,” is a suite of songs set to the verse of Uruguayan poet Juana de Ibarbourou (1892-1979). Argentine singer Katie Viqueira joins Michelin’s trio, with Robert Taylor on bass and Tiago Michelin (Nando’s son) on drums, and the Four Corners string quartet. The show travels from the Amazing Things Arts Center (March 8) and the Longy School (March 10) to the Acton Jazz Café, Acton (March 14), and Ryles Jazz Club in Cambridge (March 19).

New World Jazz Composers Octet
March 10, 8.p.m.
Berklee Performance Center, Boston, MA.

This octet, led by saxophonist and composer Daniel Ian Smith, digs deep into the mainstream tradition to create new work that is both elegant and fiery. The band also includes pianist Tim Ray, saxophonist Felipe Salles, trumpeters Walter Platt and Tony D’Aveni, percussionist Ernesto Diaz, bassist Keala Kaumeheiwa, and drummer Mark Walker.

Nir Felder
March 11, 7:30 p.m.
Regattabar, Cambridge, MA.

On his Okeh Records debut, Golden Age (released in January), young guitar wizard Nir Felder mixes dreamy indie-rock instrumentals with the kind of busy, sharp-angled uptempo pieces that progressive jazz fans love. The latter showed off his amazing chops — spiky patterns so unpredictable and fresh that it was hard to imagine how he was thinking so fast. It will be interesting to see how he mixes things up at the Regattabar with two players from the album, pianist Aaron Parks and drummer Nate Smith, along with bassist Orlando le Flemming.

Ambrose Akinmusire
March 12, 7:30 p.m.
Regattabar, Cambridge, MA.

The adventurous young trumpeter and composer Ambrose Akinmusire (2007 winner of the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition) releases his second Blue Note CD, the imagined savior is far easier to paint, on March 11, then celebrates with a show at the Regattabar. Joining Akinmusire is his working quartet: saxophonist Walter Smith III, pianist Sam Harris, bassist Harish Raghavan, and drummer Justin Brown.

Bill Banfield’s Jazz Urbane
March 12, 8 p.m.
Scullers Jazz Club

Guitarist and Berklee professor Bill Banfield fronts his pop fusion outfit Jazz Urbane with the formidable young alto saxophonist Tia Fuller as special guest.

The Trio
March 13, 7:30 p.m. + 10 p.m.
Regattabar, Cambridge, MA.

Alto saxophonist Donald Harrison, bassist Ron Carter, and drummer Billy Cobham released their first album as the Trio in 2004, mixing exploratory variations on New Orleans funk with post-bop swing.

… and coming up

Vijay Iyer Trio/Robert Pinsky
March 14, 8 p.m.
Sanders Theatre, Cambridge, MA.

Pianist, composer, and MacArthur Fellow Vijay Iyer joins former U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Pinksy for one of Pinsky’s PoemJazz duo sets and then takes the stage with his formidable trio mates, bassist Stephan Crump and drummer Marcus Gilmore, in this Celebrity Series concert.

Myra Melford
March 14, 8 p.m.
Lily Pad, Cambridge, MA.

Pianist and composer Myra Melford’s exquisite chops, tact, and imagination have served her well with any number of jazz’s great experimenters, from Henry Threadgill, Joseph Jarman, and Leroy Jenkins to Dave Douglas, Marty Ehrlich, and Matt Wilson. She plays a solo gig in support of her solo-piano CD, Life Carries Me This Way (Firehouse 12) at the intimate Lily Pad.

Snarky Puppy
March 14, 8 p.m.
Berklee Performance Center, Boston, MA.

From the next generation of jazz-rock-funk fusion, Snarky Puppy have signaled their arrival with a 2014 Grammy win for Best R&B Performance and a booking at the upcoming Newport Jazz Festival. You’ll hear R&B, but also the familiar sound of proggy ’70s-’80s fusion, updated with nifty horn charts and distinctive post-rock twists and turns. Dallas funk-fusion band Funky Knuckles opens.