by S. Victor Aaron
When a great, small combo jazz pianist makes a solo record, it usually doesn’t signal that pianist’s arrival, it means he’s solidifying his legacy. We witnessed this with Art Tatum’s Solo Masterpieces recordings made at the end of his life. The same goes with Bill Evans’ Alone recorded several years after his. first solo piano recordings were made before but after his signature Now He Sings, Now He Sobs album, the short lived but highly acclaimed Circle band he co-led and of course his stint in Miles Davis’ band during a very creative time. Even earlier this year, . For Iyer, a solo piano record makes perfect sense as the next move for the guy who walked away with the Downbeat Magazine International Critics Poll and New York Times #1 jazz album in 2009 for Historicity, as well as other numerous accolades (including my ).
I suppose everyone’s got their own criterion on determining what makes a great piano solo record. Mine is how well they do in revealing the melody in a discreet manner that doesn’t leave the listener already satisfied in the first minute or two. Also, how well the performer exploit the range of timbres at his disposal. And lastly, does he or she leave his own personality on the song and make it his own. Note that I didn’t allude to technical skills; if the pianist can do those other things, then the technical ability is presumed.
Certainly, Iyer doesn’t lack for technical ability.
Iyer dedicates Solo to Thelonious Monk, , Duke Ellington, Muhal Richard Abrams, , Cecil Taylor, and Sun Ra, as well as past mentors , Steve Coleman and Roscoe Mitchell. All all those cited are pioneers—and many of them avant-guardists—which suggest the Iyer himself intended to record an “out” record, but he instead reconciles the in with the out, which is more apparent in his five originals than the six covers.
Those half dozen covers are chosen not for popularity, although nearly all of them should be familiar to most. Rather, these are songs that mean something personally to the performer himself, a connection either with the composer/original performer or with the song itself. So although he was only around eleven when Michael Jackson’s Thriller was dominating the charts, Iyer remembers the beautiful melody from Steve Porcaro and John Bettis’ “Human Nature” and was drawn back to it in the wake of Jackson’s death. On Solo, he eases into the familiar melody, and soon his signature percussive left hand comes into focus, as his right hand provides harmony. The deviation from the original rendering comes not so much from notes played—he stays pretty faithful to the chord progression throughout. Rather, it’s how he modulates those succession of notes. He builds up the chorus with an intensity that washes over you, leaving behind a void in the sound at the end, which could be taken to symbolize Jackson’s departure.
In a similar fashion, Monk’s “Epistrophy” is easily identifiable after a brief, alternate intro, but only because he’s playing the notes in the familiar pattern. However, the rapid way it’s rendered by his right hand contrasting with the bass notes provided at half speed from his left casts this song in a whole new light. The old Van Heusen/DeLange standby “Darn That Dream” is delivered relatively “straight,” but Iyer lets each note hang just a little behind the silent beat. On the two Ellington tunes, he undertakes a prewar, almost stride piano style for “Black And Tan Fantasy” and resembles the beautifully majestic and melodic approach of Abdullah Ibrahim on “Fleurette Africaine.”
Iyer trades in some of the direct and simple lyricism for adventuresome playing and more expressive moods when it comes to his own compositions. The brief “Prelude: Heartpiece” conveys a sense of foreboding, and “Autoscopy” speaks in Taylor’s advanced language for the first half, smoothly transitioning to Viyer’s own familiar repeating arpeggios for the second. As the most extended piece of the album, “Patterns” traverses through the greatest number of his mannerisms and whims. “Games” calls to mind the elusive and esoteric melodies that Hill was so good at coming up with, and the Sun Ra tribute “One For Blount” oddly doesn’t sound much like the freewheeling, demented style of of the former Herman “Sonny” Blount. Instead, it’s a blues based number that’s demonstrates Iyer’s spirited and insightful interpretation of that side of jazz.
So does Vijay Iyer’s Solo meet the standard for a standout solo piano record? When tested against my own personal criterion, I believe that he does. I suspect that he’ll meet most other jazz lovers’ own personal criteria as well.
Solo, Iyer’s second for ACT Music, will arrive in all the usual CD retail outlets on August 31.