Masculine Instrumentality; or, Actions Speak: Accelerando by the Vijay Iyer Trio

By Daniel Garrett

Vijay Iyer Trio, Accelerando
Recorded by Chris Allen and mixed by Scotty Hard
Mastered by Mike Fossenkemper
ACT Music + Vision, 2012

The tumultuous texture in the work of the Vijay Iyer Trio is jazz but also moves beyond that music. Vijay Iyer has developed a reputation as an important, serious composer and musician. Bassist Stephen Crump and drummer Marcus Gilmore are part of the pianist Vijay Iyer’s trio. Iyer, an Indian-American who has been interested in science as well as art, has with Crump and Gilmore drawn inspiration from jazz and funk, rock, and Indian, Javanese, and African music. Listening to the music of the Vijay Iyer Trio’s album Accelerando, with its rumbling chords, and the tension of descending, pulsating chords, and the bass providing ground for the piano’s sparkling notes, and the galloping drum rhythm, is not an experience easily forgotten. “This album is in the lineage of American creative music based on dance rhythms. We place our small acts alongside those of others in that tradition: Duke Ellington (the closing track is from his ballet ‘The River’), Herbie Nichols, Henry Threadgill, Michael Jackson, Heatwave, and Flying Lotus,” wrote Vijay Iyer in the album notes of Accelerando. One of the album’s highlights—if not the central highlight—is the album’s interpretation of a ballad made famous by singer Michael Jackson, “Human Nature,” subsequently performed by Miles Davis. Iyer emphasizes music as action; and that fits in with the sense of force the listener hears in the trio’s work. The album cover has a piece of art—it is called “Mother as a Mountain,” a 1985 wood and gesso piece by Anish Kapoor—and it looks like a monumental presentation of a woman’s most private part, but a feminine spirit does not seem to guide the music. Rather, this is very masculine work.

Instrumental music requires a special attention—its complexity almost returns us to deciphering existence itself. One hears the trio—pianist Iyer, bassist Crump, and drummer Gilmore— working alone and together. Accelerando’s “Bode” is a short piece with an atmospheric texture of rumbling, sustained weighted piano notes. With a lot of beats and energy in “Optimism,” an Iyer composition, the emergence of the bass is a relief from a listener’s attentive but anxious thinking, and anxious possibly because the speed of the music resists that kind of cognitive grasping, though the bass tone could be perceived to embody thought too. “The Star of a Story” has what sounds like a compelling, slightly shuffling, slightly slow three-beat rhythm that the piano’s distinct notes ride—and then the repetition of one particular note; and the development of the piece creates a rhythm that, as structure, exists between a groove and something more ominous. The melody emerges almost immediately in “Human Nature,” which has a light opening of piano and percussion; and the piece is pretty, as was the original, and it has substance, as did the original, performed by Michael Jackson, an imaginative and passionate artist of popular music. The rhythm pattern indicates a difficult digression—a difficulty of human experience, not musical ability—but the melody asserts itself and there is a tiny silence and a new, short, pleasant beginning before a swift conclusion.

The bass, at first, is in the forefront of “Wildflower,” written by Herbie Nichols, though the piano and drums are not absent; and the piano can swing, but the rhythm of the music sounds too complicated—too stop-start, too left-right—for dancing. (Nichols was interested in the experimental work of classical Russian modernist composers as well as Duke Ellington and stride pianists.) In “Mmmhmm” the piano is gentle but the rhythm behind it is intense, almost hammering, and “Little Pocket Size Demons,” composed by Henry Threadgill, has a crazy cacophony, with jagged, yelping bowing on the bass, while “Lude,” which uses silence as well as sound, is solitary and slow, though there are some piano runs. The title song “Accelerando,” written by Iyer for a dance piece by choreographer Karole Armitage, is dramatic, dynamic, forceful, really combustible (“The goal was to see whether a constantly accelerating pulse could form the basis for dance,” wrote Iyer in the album’s notes); and while “Actions Speak” has long piano lines and is melodious, with firm, tight rhythms from the trio’s other members, the music is too convulsive to inspire much comparison with the classical. This is music that insists on its own ferocity. Even the concluding Duke Ellington piece, “The Village of the Virgins,” which has a contemplative quality and the piano at its center, and is almost ceremonial in its measured pace, is somber but forceful. Accelerando seems to be the work of young men obsessed with their own strength.

Daniel Garrett, a graduate of the New School for Social Research, and the principal organizer of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at Poets House, is a writer whose work has appeared in The African, All About Jazz, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, Black Film Review, Changing Men, Cinetext, Contact II, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen, Illuminations, Muse Apprentice Guild, Option, Pop Matters, Quarterly Black Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Red River Review, Review of Contemporary Fiction, Wax Poetics, and World Literature Today. Daniel Garrett has written extensively about international film for Offscreen, and comprehensive commentary on music for The Compulsive Reader.