Vijay Iyer Pushes Some Hot Buttons on His Latest Album

by delarue

“With this collection of uneasy pieces, composed over a span of twenty years, we pay tribute to both the loud and the soft, the quick flurry and the slow rise, the hurricane and its eye, the uprising and its steady dream of abolition,” Vijay Iyer explains in the liner notes to his latest album Uneasy, streaming at Spotify. The guy who’s arguably this era’s foremost jazz pianist doesn’t specify what needs to be abolished, but it’s a fair bet that like a growing majority of us, he sees a window of opportunity to put an end to a multitude of evils.

And those evils go back millennia. One relatively recent one is memorialized in the understated power and portents of the opening number, Children of Flint, where Iyer begins by setting playfully cascading figures within a much more somber context. Bassist Linda May Han Oh takes a dancing turn as the piano takes the melody to the glimmering upper registers, drummer Tyshawn Sorey moving from a lithe understatement to aggressively embracing the rhythm as Iyer romps over stern modalities. But pointillistic insistence soon enough evaporates into the gloom.

There’s a somber oldtime gospel melody lurking close to the surface in Combat Breathing, Iyer’s clenched-teeth opening scrambles over hard-hitting pedalpoint recalling McCoy Tyner. It takes a glissando and a random crash or two to momentarily throw off the shackles, but even as the music calms and then the dance begins, the claustrophobia remains. There’s an even more persistent, brooding modal sensibility in the methodically swaying Touba, a little later on.

There are two covers here. The offbeat syncopation of Night and Day is clever: it quickly becomes more of a vampy launching pad for Iyer’s emphatic chords and Oh’s contrastingly effervescent solo. The circularities of Drummer’s Song, by Geri Allen shift from twinkling to jaunty and then just short of a piledriver assault as Sorey prowls the perimeter, Oh again in the good-cop role. Iyer has seldom hit harder than he does throughout most of this album.

Augury, a grimly hammering solo Iyer tone poem of sorts, is the album’s creepiest track: if anything here was written after the lockdown, this has to be it. Rivulets flow from the highs over Iyer’s hard-hitting lefthand in Configurations, as Oh dances in between the hailstones, finally embracing the darkness.

Likewise, her tantalizingly furtive, tiptoeing solo after Iyer and Sorey set the stage with ominous modes and roundhouse cymbal crashes in the album’s title track, Iyer interrupting his bounding attack momentarily to let a devious, flickering poltergeist in. It doesn’t end as you might expect.

Sorey holds a casual, steady clave even while the beats stagger around him as Retrofit gathers steam, then it’s Oh’s turn to hold the center. Iyer’s disquietingly strobing riffage is catchy despite the lack of solid ground underneath. The trio close the album with the saturnine, distantly raga-flavored Entrustment, pulling away and then back toward a turbulent but guardedly hopeful center.

Iyer has made a lot of good records but this is one of his best, and darkest. And for those wondering why on earth this blog would wait until now to give it a spin, after pretty much everybody else has, the answer is simple. The year-end jazz polls are going up right now, and it would be pretty ignorant to leave this one off the best-of-2021 list!