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Art, activism, optimism: Jazz pianist Vijay Iyer navigates uneasy times

Vijay Iyer (center), with Tyshawn Sorey and Linda May Han Oh. The trio carried the momentum of a late 2019 performance in Cambridge into the recording studio for "Uneasy."
Vijay Iyer (center), with Tyshawn Sorey and Linda May Han Oh. The trio carried the momentum of a late 2019 performance in Cambridge into the recording studio for "Uneasy."Craig Marsden

On Dec. 4, 2019, the jazz pianist Vijay Iyer took the stage at the Harvard Square club Oberon. Iyer is a musician for whom art and politics always stand in a harmonious, productive tension, something that was especially true during the Trump presidency. That night in Cambridge he joked that it was “my favorite season — impeachment season.” He then gave Boston its first opportunity to hear a recently convened trio with two outstanding musicians: bassist Linda May Han Oh and drummer Tyshawn Sorey.

The three had known each other for years — in the case of Iyer and Sorey, for some 20 years — but only began playing as a unit earlier that year. Still, the connection among them was obvious. Listeners who knew the work of Iyer’s longstanding trio with bassist Stephan Crump and drummer Marcus Gilmore may have sensed a darker, more mysterious groove in the new ensemble, with Oh’s intrepid melodic lines cutting through Sorey’s eruptive rhythms and Iyer’s surging piano work. Later that week, the trio decamped to a studio outside New York City to capture the freshness and discovery already evident at Oberon.

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The resulting album, “Uneasy” (out Friday on ECM), is extraordinary, and it can be heard in myriad ways. As another entry in Iyer’s extensive oeuvre, reaffirming his status as one of the most creative figures in improvised music. As an acknowledgment of seminal influences. As a supremely confident work by a trio that was just beginning to make its presence felt when the pandemic ruled out further public performance.

Iyer himself didn’t realize what the new album’s character was until last summer, when he, ECM founder and producer Manfred Eicher, and recording engineer Ryan Streber (all working remotely) were ushering the recording into finished form. “For everything I’ve ever done, it’s always in retrospect that any kind of tone or general thrust becomes even vaguely apparent,” Iyer said recently by phone from his Harlem brownstone.

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What he eventually came to recognize was the album’s particular gesture. In part it was one of solidarity: The album opens with the songs “Children of Flint” (dedicated to the children exposed to the Michigan city’s unsafe drinking water) and “Combat Breathing” (written for a 2014 Black Lives Matter action). In a way, though, it was also a gesture of faith — that during a presidency he abhorred and the pandemic, creating art and sending it into the world was still a meaningful and worthwhile act.

“What does it mean to gather these pieces together under these conditions and allow them to say anything?” said Iyer, who is the Franklin D. and Florence Rosenblatt Professor of the Arts at Harvard. “Just that optimistic act of trying to make something in the face of all of that — the unbridled and gleeful cruelty, day after day — felt like a lot. Everything felt too little and too much — a little presumptuous, a little ineffective.”

Those questions were heightened by Eicher’s suggestion of Woong Chul An’s picture of the Statue of Liberty for the cover, which provoked in Iyer simultaneous feelings of hope and dismay at what he called “the unfinished project of abolition in America.”

The cover of "Uneasy," featuring Woong Chul An’s image of the Statue of
Liberty.
The cover of "Uneasy," featuring Woong Chul An’s image of the Statue of Liberty.ECM

Hence “Uneasy,” a song title that came to stand for the whole project. “Whatever this feeling, this awkward or ambivalent feeling, is,” he said, “I think that’s the feeling of this album.”

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The record also has two covers that nod to crucial influences. The first is a fluid version of Cole Porter’s “Night and Day,” a nod to McCoy Tyner’s angular approach to the tune on Joe Henderson’s 1966 album “Inner Urge.” The second is “Drummer’s Song,” a contrapuntally intricate piece by the late pianist Geri Allen, whose stature in modern jazz Iyer has repeatedly acknowledged — most notably by co-organizing a 2018 conference at Harvard celebrating her legacy. During the interview he told a story about how Allen drove him home after one of her gigs; on seeing where he lived and finding out that he had room for band rehearsals, she told him she was going to give him a drum set.

Drums are expensive, so Iyer thought that was just talk. “But every time I’d see her over the years, she’d be like, ‘When are you gonna come get these drums?’” Finally, he rented a car and drove to Allen’s home in New Jersey, where she helped him load a beautiful Rogers drum kit into the car.

“That was just part of who she was,” he explained. “It was this huge gesture, but she didn’t think anything of it. It was just like, you need this. You, Vijay Iyer, you need to be able to have sessions in your house. But it’s also just the beginning of an indication of the kind of human being she was.”

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Like Sorey, Iyer has been increasingly recognized as a composer, and he’s spent much of the last year writing works for other performers (cellist Matt Haimovitz and violinist Jennifer Koh among them). He also contributed a short segment to “desert in,” an operatic miniseries by a group of composers that Boston Lyric Opera will premiere in June.

But he’s mostly kept a pretty low profile during the pandemic year. He’s not a big fan of livestream concerts — “If I didn’t like listening to a lot of that, I couldn’t imagine making others listen to it” — although he enjoyed seeing people (including fellow musicians) engage in the live chat during some of his performances.

Still, like most musicians, he’s looking ahead (hopefully and warily) to the resumption of authentic live concerts. Playing for people on the other side of a screen, he said, “isn’t at all the same as the ritual of gathering and sharing musical experience. That’s one of the deepest, most ancient traits that we have as human beings, the capacity to do that, and we’ve been starved of it for so long. So we need to recover it.”


David Weininger can be reached at globeclassicalnotes@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @davidgweininger.