Oldie Alert! Vijay Iyer Review from 2010…

This is a review of Iyer’s concert at The Vortex, London, from the 13th December 2010. I can’t believe a year has nearly passed already! I’m quite pleased with it and I think it reads well (although after re-reading it I’ve made a few minor grammatical corrections). I’ve copied it from my old blog, something I’m going to do with a few other pieces.  There were a couple of other reviewers in the audience that night, but, as a musician, I think mine’s the most informative 😉 Enjoy…


Whilst the rain was spitting against the glass front of The Vortex, the full house were waiting patiently for the Indo-American pianist to appear. The audience, snugly nestled in their seats, nattered contently to each other, overtly eager for Iyer to begin.

It wasn’t until twenty minutes past the listed start time that Vijay appeared, lingering from behind the bar with his water in hand, small talking with the club manager. With his blazer, cardigan and tie combo Iyer gave the impression of a student teacher, and over the course of two sets he certainly did educate.

Once gently positioned on the piano stool Iyer began a meditative piece, gently swirling atonal chord clusters across the range of the piano. A smash of the bass register interrupted any calmness, allowing Iyer to dig out a staggered bass line from the lower depths, leading to a coaxing of an angular melody on top.

This led to a fine display of his chops, uninterrupted percussive runs up-and-down the piano. However one could hear purpose behind these athletic gestures, these were not merely a calling card or exercises in dexterity. They linked in with his first true tune statement, Monk’s Epistophy.

The hook of Epistophy was used as a leitmotif, a springboard to further improvisatory – both melodic and harmonic – exploration. It was a fantastic opener, and the structural course of the piece would be emulated many times throughout the evening.

Iyer’s influences were in abundance, and his technique of snatching melodic fragments and developing them into a harmonically ambiguous pianistic sculpture screamed Martial Solal. Like Solal, Iyer observes the creative process at a slight acute-angle.

This is not to say Iyer’s musical canvas is murky and full, lolloping fat chords across the keys for their own sake – although the last song of the evening, a Sun Ra inspired romp called One For Blount did favour the larger voicing, with a poetic outcome may I add. No, Iyer used space and silence to act as a frame for his beautiful, soul-searching noodling.

Take his rendition of Coltrane’s Giant Steps. I automatically drew comparisons with McCoy Tyner’s solo take from his Live in Warsaw album. I’ve always believed Tyner’s take that evening to be a sloppy affair, throwing lick after clichéd licked at an unnecessarily busy performance. What Iyer created last night was the version Tyner’s could have been. A bold statement to make, but Iyer freed the piece from all of the unnecessary extremities, until he was left with sustained individual bass notes, and a beautiful and concise palette of improvisatory ideas. It was pure.

My highlight for the evening, and incidentally from his solo album, was a fine take of Ellington’s Black and Tan Fantasy. He created an introduction for this live version that used harmonically ambiguous chord fragments in the mid-register, a blurring of the tonal quality in a Debussyesque fashion. Suddenly, but no less expectedly, that slow, repetitive, stomping bass line thunders in, and that timeless Ellington theme begins. It was his solo during this piece that really highlighted what a searcher of an improviser Iyer truly is. He is raw and unpolished in places, but unashamedly so, because it is this style that allows him to be so exploratory and inventive. Sitting in the audience that evening one truly did feel the toil and exuberance of witnessing true art. It was a humbling experience, and it’s a shame this was his only date in the UK during his European tour.


About Will Rodway

what you hear, what you read...
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