Pianist Vijay Iyer and his sextet’s sold-out opening set of a weeklong stand at the Vanguard last night was an energetic yet saturnine suite – or a darkly glimmering jazz sonata. Iyer is not an ostentatious pianist: he makes his point, has some fun and then gets out, just like Thelonious Monk and Ellington before him would do. It’s a little early to enshrine Iyer alongside those two, but the esthetic is the same. His band provided alternately blustery and plaintive intensity throughout well over an hour and a half onstage. He’s back at the Vanguard tonight, July 17 through the 21st, with sets at 8:30 and around 10; cover is $35.
Other than band introductions, Iyer barely spoke to the audience, beyond asserting that he and the band stand against Trump’s bigotry and white supremacy, encouraging the crowd to keep fighting, since “The fight is far from over.” That’s the title of Iyer’s album with this crew, and he reminded everybody that it’s just as true today as when he released it back in 2017.
His gritty, sometimes grim modal focus contrasted with the turbulence of the horns. Tenor player Mark Shim began and ended the night crossing simmering, smoky terrain; in between, he soared and spiraled and chuffed in tandem with drummer Jeremy Dutton, the group’s junior member. A constantly recurring trope, the pairings of individual horns with the full rhythm section, contrasted with Iyer’s relentlessness, sharply focused rhythm and hard-edged, often distantly latin-inflected melodicism.
Alto saxophonist Steve Lehman built increasingly complex layers of hardbop, bouncing and even pogoing in place while Dutton distingushed himself as a connoisseur of New Orleans funk grooves. Graham Haynes played mournful wide-angle flugelhorn, switching to cornet for his more kinetic moments. Bassist Stephan Crump pulsed in tandem with Iyer, or, in one of the night’s most rapturous interludes, bowed sepulchral midrange wisps against the bandleader’s eerie belltone variations.
It was a night of innumerable transcendent moments, immersed in the sobering context of the here and now, where we have a bridge-and-tunnel ranter in the Oval Office whose hysterical antics only obscure the ongoing unraveling of the Constitution. The most rapturous of those musical moments was when Iyer worked extreme lows against extreme highs while Haynes built a shivery, Twin Peaks microtonal interlude on his flugelhorn. Likewise, Iyer’s clever shifts from refusenik low-register pedalpoint to increasingly tense, stabbing close harmonies while the horns blew clouds of steam. Every number segued into an other, Iyer seamlessly bridging the chasms between hard-swinging funk and distantly sinister majesty. As the pianist intimated, there’s no telling where the next set is going to go: they’re all different. And yet, they’ll all have singalong (or at least humalong) tunefulness balancing a persistent unease. No wonder the guy’s so popular.