Vijay Iyer/Linda May Han Oh/Tyshawn Sorey : Compassion

Vijay Iyer compassion review

In jazz, the lineup of piano, double bass and drums has been the trio setup du jour ever since Bill Evans revolutionized the approach to arrangement for a small jazz combo. There’s something magical about it, fusing both the highbrow and sophisticate’s classical music body via the brightness of a well-tuned piano to the skittering evocative spray of color of a well-played drum kit, all fused to the earthiness and fundamental jazziness of well-played double-bass. It’s not a shock that Vijay Iyer knows this; at 52 and with a rack of records, Grammy nominations, publications on improvisation in critical journals as well as solicitations of work and teaching positions, it seems obvious.

Following 2021’s Uneasy, Compassion is the second record of his as bandleader beside bassist Linda May Han Oh and drummer Tyshawn Sorey, a rhythm section that plays with a keen ear between laying down the fundamentals and splashing in some occasional color or texture as appropriate. Sorey especially plays an imagistic approach to the drum kit, bridging the divide for sharp-eared listeners between this kind of modern creative jazz and the other improvisational worlds of noise, ambient and motorik rock, with the drummer only occasionally providing a traditional beat, instead often opting for color work, especially in the album opener which sees emulations of rainfall and the twinkling of lights across the kit.

But the star of the show here is clearly Iyer. See, for instance, the boldness in his playing on “Overjoyed,” the Stevie Wonder number. It’s bold enough, admittedly, just to pick such a pop masterpiece. Wonder is of course a brilliant player himself, but his pop songcraft often leaves his songs feeling airtight, incapable of being modified without sullying them. Iyer acknowledges this tacitly with the somewhat conservative opening minutes of the performance, leading his band to a performance that feels as much Christopher O’Riley or perhaps Chopin as it does a Motown legend. And then, from the yonder, a series of brilliant chordal planings, sliding in and out of the expected chords, the entire middle section of the piece reconfigured into a harmonic labyrinthian whirlwind chasing after the tune but never finding it, in the most exhilarating of ways. The tension is so palpable you will be squirming in your seat before, finally, with great relief, he returns to the song as known. It’s tricky playing with ironclad compositions like that, but its a virtuoso showcase that signifies not only his keen playing but also the rapt and studious work of the rhythm section to constantly follow and support but never steal the limelight away from the bandleader, something doubly remarkable when mulling over all the potentially quite tasty bass or drum patterns one could build over the piece.

The rest of the pieces here run the gamut from avant-garde contemporary classical compositions played in the trio format to more traditional post-bop to programmatic pieces, the typical trade of ECM artists marrying the worlds of contemporary classical music and jazz in a dizzying improvisational form. This is not, it should be stated, a record of groundbreaking thoughts, nor does it present itself as one; this is an artful and well-played set well within the bounds one might expect from the name of the label on the tin, a high-level showcase that makes breezy and seemingly effortless what truly takes a lifetime to master. While typically this would remainder the record into the category of albums of interest only to those deep in the field, the brilliance revealed only in quiet mental comparison to the thousands of records one can listen to over a lifetime, here the trio again surprises both with a brilliantly engineered set (a well-recorded Steinway will almost always impress) and a riveting set of performances.

Jazz at its best should be nearly synesthetic, a wordless play of image in sound. Here, it is a saber dance of water and air, the crispness of the drums against the crystalline perfection of the piano, fibrous strands of bass note plucks and strums. ECM always play muted with cover design and their artists often aim for machine-milled perfection in performance rather than the more immediately catching approaches of, say, your standard heavy metal or punk or hip-hop outfit. It can be a hard sell to get someone to sit with a brilliant genre exercise. But Iyer and company here make another in a bountiful list of arguments of the agony music lovers feel when people say they don’t listen to jazz, with casual lifetime-honed brilliance seemingly casually flicked off the fingertips.

Label: ECM

Year: 2024

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