Thursday, April 30, 2009

Vijay Iyer? Has Another New Record Coming Out? What Is This, Like, His Third in Two Years?

It should come as no surprise to anyone who has spent any time reading this blog over the past year or so that I would come out of hibernation to drool over new tracks on Vijay Iyer's myspace. Have you heard them? If you have not, you can find them right here, and they are KILLIN'. Of the five new tracks, three are going to be featured on his new album, "Historicity" and are played by his trio. The other two, "Thrash Anthem" and "Down to the Wire," are played by his sextet and were written as cues for ESPN (how cool is that?).

"Historicity" and "Helix" are classic Iyer, the former featuring violent, stuttering rhythms and equally percussive piano work, and the latter opening quietly, with seemingly improvised chord changes and eventually rising to crescendo, recalling "Threnody" from last year's Tragicomic. The rhythms featured about halfway through the track are completely new, however, and involve the shifts and stutters not uncommon in Iyer's compositions. The third of the trio tracks, however, is possibly the most interesting of all: a cover of M.I.A.'s break-out hit, "Galang." Iyer brings it, and "Galang" is possibly the craziest of the three. Drummer Marcus Gilmore bangs away while bassist Steven Crump attacks every hit; Iyer's own pianistic mimicking of M.I.A.'s voice is uncanny, and the whole thing reminds me of Jason Moran's Bandwagon on crack.

Check them out, if the rest of "Historicity" is as good as these three, we could have one of the best of the year on the way.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Julian Lage Sounds Off

Berklee student Julian Lage’s debut solo album, The Sounding Point, is all over the place in the best way possible. Showcasing his interest in classical music, jazz, and American folk music, it is a credit to the young Mr. Lage that The Sounding Point never sounds schizophrenic. In spite of the album’s huge scope, Lage never sounds like he’s stretching himself too far.

Lage, who became well known in 1997 as the subject of the academy award winning documentary “Jules at Eight,” has until now been known mostly as a child prodigy and as a collaborator of fellow child prodigy Taylor Eigsti. The Sounding Point, however, shows that he is more than just that; his integration of numerous idioms on tracks like “All Purpose Beginning” and “Quiet Through and Through” prove that he is a major talent in the process of finding himself as a musician.

While Lage’s band on the album largely consists of himself, cellist Aristides Rivas, saxophonist Ben Roseth, bassist Jorge Roeder, and drummer Tupac Mantilla, the best tracks on the album are arguably the three collaborations with banjoist Bela Fleck and mandolinist Chris Thile. These tracks showcase a relatively seamless dialogue between jazz and bluegrass, and are in many ways the culmination of a fusing of these two genres that began in the 90s with Bill Frisell’s Nashville.

“The Informant,” one such track, opens with a nimble banjo line from Fleck that is immediately mimicked and spun around by Lage. The three of them eventually enter into a fast, contemporary bluegrass jam that features some snaky guitar lines from Lage and later, a series of trade-offs between Fleck and Thile. These three tracks are alone worth the price of the album, as they showcase three great musicians from largely different backgrounds working together to create interesting improvised music.

The album’s other highlight is technically not on the album at all; a run through “All Blues” that features Lage’s compatriot Taylor Eigsti. While the tune is by now overplayed- and there is a clearly definitive and beloved version (that would be Miles Davis’)- Eigsti and Lage take the tune and turn it inside out without even altering anything that makes the tune great. It’s still in 6/8 (or 3/4, depending on your Real Book edition), the chords aren’t reharmonized (at least not initially), and it still swings like nobody’s business; the joy in it, however, is in hearing the two musicians really cut loose on a straight-ahead, old school jazz tune after hearing almost an hour of Lage’s classical and bluegrass fusions. The placement is jarring, and really does seem to prove that Julian Lage is capable of anything.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

The Bad Plus at the BPC With Wendy Lewis

While the lack of an encore may well have upset a number of fans, there is no doubt that The Bad Plus played at least two thirds of a great show on Friday, April 3rd. During the second half of their set there was something of a lull; they were joined by singer Wendy Lewis (the regular trio is comprised of bassist Reid Anderson, drummer David King, and pianist Ethan Iverson), and after rousing takes on Nirvana’s “Lithium” and Wilco’s “Radio Cure” focused on too many down-tempo songs.

The first half of their set was perfect. Everything, even down to song choice, was exactly what a fan of the trio could have hoped for. In addition to the trio songs on their new album (which include their idiosyncratic versions of twentieth century classical pieces by Ligety, Stravinsky, and Babet), the band played a few highlights from their older records.

These highlights included a run through Anderson’s “Physical Cities” that could only be described by an audience member as “insane.” The song, which begins with an odd-meter funk groove, moves into a series of hits that eventually become the center of the song before transitioning into another funk groove. After Anderson and Iverson solo, the band plays the same hits, extending them for what seems like an eternity. The insane part is that this new series of hits is different, has no defined pattern, and is played in perfect unison by the group, who have memorized it and play as if they are all one musician.

After “Physical Cities,” the undeniable peak of the show, the band invited vocalist Wendy Lewis to the stage for the second half of their set. The first half of the show was good enough that it was clearly going to be hard to continue the forward momentum going into Lewis’s songs.

Lewis, whose contributions on their most recent album For All I Care was essential to changing up the trio’s sound, was not quite as inventive live as the rest of the group, which is understandable due to the fact that the three of them have been playing together without her for more than ten years. Another problem with Lewis’ portion of the show was that for the most part, the live versions of songs were nearly identical to those on the record, and those tunes that didn’t appear on For All I Care were generally dirges (“Blue Velvet” and “New Year’s Day” come to mind). The band’s closer, “Comfortably Numb,” however, made up for these problems with the sort of disaffected energy usually reserved for a rock band.

While the second half of the Bad Plus’s show at the BPC was plagued by some issues stemming from the inclusion of Wendy Lewis, the first half was almost undeniably what any fan would have wanted. The only other major problem with the show, the lack of an encore, was notable more for the fact that audience members perhaps would have wanted to see the trio performing alone together for one last tune.

Next time I'll have a review of Julian Lage's "Sounding Point."