A Pianist’s Escalating Insurgency Accelerando by the Vijay Iyer Trio

Vijay Iyer
Jazz has always been an adaptive art, possessed of certain essentials but receptive to variation at every turn. The pianist-composer-bandleader Vijay Iyer knows this as well as anyone. He has made a serious study of it, in theory as well as practice, and his last decade or so of music making can partly be understood as a pertinent provocation.

“Accelerando," his fourth release on the German label ACT, and an early front-runner for jazz album of the year, encapsulates his knack for making prickly experimentalism feel approachable, intuitive, even stylish.

It's a sleek refinement of concepts that Mr. Iyer has been rigorously testing throughout his career, but the album's effect is abrupt and urgent. And because it makes a point of connecting with the jazz tradition, it seems all the more likely to exert an influence there, sneaking up on an establishment trained to guard against less amicable incursions.

Mr. Iyer, 40, has already earned a prominence beyond the typical reach of the avant-garde, partly by engaging seriously with aspects of a larger culture. He has collaborated on three politically minded multimedia pieces with the poet Mike Ladd; he has recorded songs with titles like “Habeas Corpus" and “Macaca Please." His recent albums feature cover images of works by the artist Anish Kapoor. More important, he has cultivated a strong signature with ensembles like Fieldwork, a cerebral but combustible collective, and his quartet, featuring the alto saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa.

“Accelerando" features his superb trio with the nimble but grounded bassist Stephan Crump and the magically propulsive drummer Marcus Gilmore.

The same personnel appeared on “Historicity," one of the most acclaimed jazz albums of 2009, and a precursor in other ways, including its ratio of original music to shrewdly chosen covers. Both albums flutter with shifting polyrhythm, and both take an incantatory approach to melody. Both feature dynamic tributes to Mr. Iyer's jazz heroes, like the saxophonist-composers Henry Threadgill and Julius Hemphill.

And both albums hinge on Mr. Iyer's emphatic but flowing pianism, which borrows aspects of touch and temperament from Andrew Hill, Thelonious Monk and Randy Weston, among others. (His special advocacy of Mr. Hill is reminiscent of two of his peers: Jason Moran, whose touchstone is Jaki Byard, and Ethan Iverson, who swears by Paul Bley.) What gives “Accelerando" the edge is partly the execution—it's less of a surprise than Mr. Iyer's previous trio album but sharper and surer—and partly its thematic clarity. As the title implies, “Historicity" was about the determinative relationship between the past and the present, a potent but fairly abstract idea.

“Accelerando" is about human movement, especially dance: a more graspable premise, and one that finds endless traction in the music. (Here too there's an affinity with Mr. Moran, who has composed for ballet, and Mr. Iverson, a former musical director for the Mark Morris Dance Group.)

It's important to note that pulse is rarely a stable element for this trio, which makes the most out of Mr. Gilmore's capacity for pairing a floating, semiabstract feeling with rhythmic undertow. On “Actions Speak," his lightly jagged funk complements a swarming repetition by Mr. Iyer; on “Lude" he builds an almost imperceptible crescendo over a subtly lopsided groove.

The Vijay Iyer Trio will perform April 10 to 14 at Birdland, 315 West 44th Street, Clinton, (212) 581-3080, birdlandjazz.com.

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