Reviews

Liberty Ellman

San Francisco Bay Guardian

Liberty Ellman, Orthodoxy (CD, 71:19) Red Giant RG-1, 1997
Red Giant Records
606 Vanderbilt Ave. #1
Brooklyn, NY 11238
Phone: 718-789-2946
E-mail: liberty@redgiantrecords.com
Cyberhome: www.redgiantrecords.com

Talk about talent deserving wider recognition. Guitarist Liberty Ellman has been placed in the M-BASE camp by some, but it’s not quite so easy to pin him down. His highly enjoyable debut, Orthodoxy, is an ultra-hip mix of abstract swing and spacey but intense groove-call it Greg Osby meets In a Silent Way by way of The Sorceror. The slow, odd-metered funk and seductive melody of “Psi Missing” is a standout.

Some of the tunes are rather long and take on the feel of a loose jam, making the album a bit repetitive. But you can’t blame Ellman for giving his bandmates so much solo room. Saxophonist Eric Crystal and pianist Vijay Iyer are phenomenal players-Ellman’s Wayne and Herbie. High marks also go to the rhythm section members: bassists Hillel Familant, K. Ellington Mingus, and Rahsaan Fredericks and drummers Brad Hargreaves and E.W. Wainwright. Ellman carves out an understated, almost modest niche for himself. Chops are not his bag, but he never fails to generate ideas and energy. And he gets plenty of mileage from a clean, fat, straightahead tone. He doesn’t need effects to sound contemporary.

Closing the record with a piano/guitar duo rendition of the Billy Strayhorn ballad “Blood Count,” Ellman shows that he can take material from jazz’s classic era and transform it into something downright futuristic. His interest in blending influences from different eras is also evident in his inclusion of turntables, courtesy of DJ Pause, on the opening track, “Translator.” (Babou Sagna on djembe adds additional rhythmic color to the tune.) Ellman is not afraid to travel outside the jazz universe and take advantage of new musical frontiers. Sometimes this sort of genre-hopping can sound contrived, but Ellman manages not to lose his way.

It’s been a couple of years since the release of Orthodoxy. Let’s hope there’s a lot more to come from Liberty Ellman.~David R. Adler

AllAboutJazz.com

Liberty Ellman, Orthodoxy (CD, 71:19) Red Giant RG-1, 1997
Red Giant Records
606 Vanderbilt Ave. #1
Brooklyn, NY 11238
Phone: 718-789-2946
E-mail: liberty@redgiantrecords.com
Cyberhome: www.redgiantrecords.com

Talk about talent deserving wider recognition. Guitarist Liberty Ellman has been placed in the M-BASE camp by some, but it’s not quite so easy to pin him down. His highly enjoyable debut, Orthodoxy, is an ultra-hip mix of abstract swing and spacey but intense groove-call it Greg Osby meets In a Silent Way by way of The Sorceror. The slow, odd-metered funk and seductive melody of “Psi Missing” is a standout.

Some of the tunes are rather long and take on the feel of a loose jam, making the album a bit repetitive. But you can’t blame Ellman for giving his bandmates so much solo room. Saxophonist Eric Crystal and pianist Vijay Iyer are phenomenal players-Ellman’s Wayne and Herbie. High marks also go to the rhythm section members: bassists Hillel Familant, K. Ellington Mingus, and Rahsaan Fredericks and drummers Brad Hargreaves and E.W. Wainwright. Ellman carves out an understated, almost modest niche for himself. Chops are not his bag, but he never fails to generate ideas and energy. And he gets plenty of mileage from a clean, fat, straightahead tone. He doesn’t need effects to sound contemporary.

Closing the record with a piano/guitar duo rendition of the Billy Strayhorn ballad “Blood Count,” Ellman shows that he can take material from jazz’s classic era and transform it into something downright futuristic. His interest in blending influences from different eras is also evident in his inclusion of turntables, courtesy of DJ Pause, on the opening track, “Translator.” (Babou Sagna on djembe adds additional rhythmic color to the tune.) Ellman is not afraid to travel outside the jazz universe and take advantage of new musical frontiers. Sometimes this sort of genre-hopping can sound contrived, but Ellman manages not to lose his way.

It’s been a couple of years since the release of Orthodoxy. Let’s hope there’s a lot more to come from Liberty Ellman.~David R. Adler

Cadence

The title of this album is a definite misnomer. There is nothing customary, conventional, or traditional about this recording. It is an original piece of work put together by guitarist Ellman and his California cohorts. Ellman wrote seven of the eight tunes on the recording. The mainly showcase the solo work of pianist Iyer, saxophonist Crystal, or himself, all wrapped in an extremely strong rhythm section. Ellman has chosen to use two bass players, and occasional does the same with the drummers. Adding the djembe and turntables, which are both rhythm tools, gives the entire effort a full and bold sound.
None of the tunes are lighthearted. Each has a density and substance that allows for induvidual expression. The opening number sets the stage. Behind the turntable sounds of Pause and the heavy drum, percussion, and bass rhythms, Ellman, Iyer, and Crystal take the lead in creating a dark-toned musical poem. Ellman’s guitar sound is crystal clear, which allows you to hear all his progressions without any blurring of the notes. He is capable of soaring high which he does in both a group and induvidual context. Ideas seem to flow naturally from him and they typically result in close interplay with either Iyer or Crystal.

Iyer has an innovative piano style and also lots of ideas. His solo work is creative and flows logically throughout the pieces. He has a very percussive style that matches the darker side of the songs. I enjoyed his extended solo on “Tectonic Tightrope” but
his work throughout the program is highly rated. Crystal switches between alto and tenor and is comfortable either in the solo role or interlacing with Ellman’s guitar notes. He interfaces neatly with Ellman throughout the recording. Their interplay on “Out Of A Jazz Coma” is particularly good.

The title tune features the dense rhythm section behind some extended solos by Crystal, Iyer, and Ellman. The tune’s pace and beat remind me of the pattern Alice Coltrane often got from her quintets.

Although Fredericks, Pause, and Sagna are listed as being on all tracks, I found it difficult to pick them out on some pieces. Certainly they are not on “Blood Count,” and intriguing duet between Ellman and Iyer. As Billy Strayhorn’s title suggests, it is a moody, often brooding song done at an extremely slow tempo. The two players communicate throughout the piece in a quiet manner.

One of the pleasures I get out of reviewing music is the occasion surprise that results from hearing a new voice that has originality. Ellman certainly fits that bill. The young talent he has assembled also speaks well for the future of jazz.

Frank Rubolino

Jazz Times

LIBERTY ELLMAN
Orthodoxy
Red Giant RG-1 (71:19)
Guitarist Liberty Ellman taps into the M-Base motherlode on this self-produced CD that includes many of the more adventurous musical spirits in the San Francisco Bay area. These include Vijay Iyer on piano, Eric Crystal on saxes, Kevin Mingus (the great one’s grandson) or Hillel Familant on bass, Rahsaan Fredericks on electric bass, DJ Pause on turntables, Babou Sagna on djembe, and Brad Hargreaves or E.W. Wainwright on drums. Ellman’s atmospherically contrapuntal compositions provide an intriguing environment for all three front-line soloists.

-Bill Bennett

Jazz Now

Review of Liberty Ellman “ORTHODOXY”
in JazzNow, February 1998

Contemporary Jazz guitar players can be so goddamn boring, continuing to rely on what Herb Ellis and Barney Kessel truned out decades ago. Not so with Ellman, that’s for sure. This guy plays with an obvious major dose of Ornette Coleman influence, bravely veering outside the chord progression on the opening “Translator.” He even incorporates that hip-hop turtable-as-instrument thang via D.J. Pause without sounding trendy. It’s guys like Ellman who are setting the stage for a major revamping of the guitar’s post-Charlie Christian status in Jazz.

-Dave McElfresh

San Jose Mercury News

Ellman stirs in rock, R&B, rap, folk and cooks up hot jazz album
By Yoshi Kato
Special to the Mercury News
-SAN FRANCISCO

A conversation with jazz guitarist Liberty Ellman can be like a Sonny Rollins sax solo: an outpouring of invention, humor and allusion that dazzles a listener because of the complexity of the ideas, the effortlessness of the execution and the speed of delivery.

Ellman constantly frames his thoughts within a musical, philosophical or socioeconomic context, peppering his conversation with anecdotes, references to current events and humor.

Over lunch at the Mission District resident’s favorite Chinese restaurant in Noe Valley, Ellman discusses events that led to the release of his first album, “Orthodoxy,” on his own Red Giant label (www.redgiantrecords.com). His quartet will play Monday night at Yoshi’s in Oakland.

His career choice seems natural when you learn that his father, who lived in Queens, was a studio drummer who played on sessions such as Bette Midier’s “Divine Miss M.” album and was a member of Todd Rundgren’s Utopia band.

His mother, a singer-songwriter and guitarist, “hung out with Jimi Hendrix and a bunch of other rock stars in Greenwich Village,” Ellman says. “She was in this Rolling Stone book called ‘Groupies.”‘

Quit guitar lessons

At age 5, Ellman started guitar les sons. But he soon quit because he didn’t like learning songs such as “Yankee Doodle.” After moving with his mother to Mill Valley, he thought he wouid become a drummer like his father. That is, until he saw the artist then known as Prince in the 1983 film “Purple Rain.”

“I was into him before that, but I wanted to be like him afterward. So I committed to guitar,” he says. His stepfather bought him a white guitar, “which was very cool,” and he pursued studies on his own.

“I liked Prince as an icon. It was attractive. He was a really great musician and famous and the whole thing. But when I started getting into the music, it was my mom’s record collection that I checked out. So Jimi was my earliest influence and then John McLaughlin, because he was playing on this Miles (Davis) record that my mom had. And soon as I heard that stuff, it was just like, ‘Whoa! This is the real deal! What is that?'”

A similar reaction came when Ellman, 26, first heard John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme” album. “I had to find out what that was all about, why I found it so confusing but at the same time beautiful.”

While studying jazz and guitar on his own during high school, he played in garage bands. His friends weren’t jazz fans. So they stuck to the music of Led Zeppelin and the Police, “which was great, because I love that stuff anyway,” he says.

After high school he moved to Oakland and commuted to Santa Rosa Junior College and then Sonoma State University, earning a degree in jazz studies in 1993.

He started playing up to five shows a week with his own groups and Anibade, a local soul and R&B combo. He also became a musician with the San Francisco Mime Troupe. “It really broadened my perspectives, both musically and politically,” he says. In that job he studied country music and leamed Mexican folk songs. He also has gained insight into events such as the Zapatista uprising in Mexico and America’s HMO systems.

Next came rap

In 1995, he joined the San Francisco rap group Midnight Voices and added a deeper understanding of hip-hop to his musical palette. When it came time to record “Orthodoxy,” he brought all these experiences to the mix.

The opening cut, “Translator,” is a groove-centric original. In addition to guitar, saxophone, piano, bass and drums, it features Midnight Voices member DJ Pause on turntables; Babou Sagna on djembe; and E.W. Wainwright on drums.

“To me, the percussion language has not changed that much (over the years), even if the instruments have changed,” he says. “You can have these three guys playing together, and they’re improvising. It feels very natural.”

Six other original tracks follow, ranging stylistically from the hard-swinging “Out of a Jazz Coma” to the smart soundscapes of the title track. The album closes with a searching exploration of Billy Strayhorn’s “Blood Count.”

“I tried to choose pieces that represent the broadest sense of what I was doing then,” Ellman says. “DJ Pause was in Midnight Voices with me; so I wanted to bring in that element and appeal…. Having ‘Blood Count’ on there represents the standards side of jazz for me. And every thing in between is represented on the other tunes.

“What I did try to do is approach each of those things with the same energy, in my own vision, so it doesn’t have a scattered feeling. I wanted to have a ‘Liberty Ellman sound,’ and I think that was accomplished.”

The Liberty Ellman Ouartet

Where: Yoshi’s, Jack London Square, 510 Embarcadero West, Oakland
When: 9:30 p.m. Monday
Tickets: $6
Call: (510) 238-9200, BASS, TWEB

Rudresh Mahanthappa

No reviews here.

Various Press Clippings

The Press Says . . .
“Compelling and fiercely individualistic… The vibrancy of his tone, the unflagging drive of his rhythms, the speed of his bebop-influenced passages, and the mercurial nature of his improvisational ideas establish Mahanthappa as a player with a great deal to say.”
-The Chicago Tribune

“His solos ring with an almost religious fervor”
-Chicago Reader

“A prodigy . . . a saxophone phenom”
-New City

“One of 24 young New York jazz musicians to watch in the year 2000.”
-Jazzman

Other Artists Say . . .
“Mahanthappa is one of the freshest, strongest young voices on the alto saxophone that I’ve heard in a long time. With his experience of the rich tradition of Indian music and jazz, his music is full of rhythmic surprises and swing. He’s got something to say and the future is his! Check him out!!”
-Joe Lovano

“How delighted I was to hear Rudresh Mahanthappa play the alto saxophone. His sound is rich and mature and those ideas!!! . . . twisting, turning, colorful lines with lots of suspense. He is a true improviser with blistering technique. Watch out for Rudresh!!”
-Tim Hagans

“It’s very refreshing and encouraging to hear music of this intensity coming from a young saxophonist. Rudresh exhibits a rare harmonic and melodic fluency which projects his ideas beyond mere craft, to a well developed form of art.”
-Ernie Watts

“This is some very exciting and adventurous music by a promising young alto saxophonist. Rudresh Mahanthappa is ready to be heard.”
-David Liebman

Vijay Iyer

Reviews of Panoptic Modes

One of the most exciting albums in recent years, marking the emergence of an important new voice in jazz. Iyer is the rare triple-threat musician who’s equally accomplished as a player, composer, and bandleader. More impressively, he’s already established a distinctive style… With the artistic triumph of this album, Vijay Iyer proves that he’s not just someone to watch. He’s arrived, fully formed and ready to step out and take center stage.
-– Jeff Jackson, Jazziz
A gifted pianist with his own distinctive nail-hammering attack, Iyer makes an equally strong impression in the way he regroups his quartet, micromanaging each piece with ostinatos and unison phrasing, especially in tandem with the sanguine saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa, all of which says nothing about how open and entertaining the music is.
— Gary Giddins, “BEST JAZZ ALBUMS OF 2001,” The Village Voice
Iyer is an extravagantly gifted new-jazz pianist and a quick-witted composer, but his greatest strength is his skill as a bandleader. On this captivating quartet recording, he establishes a lock-tight rapport with his energetic rhythm section and a cognitive interaction with the alto saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa, another talent to keep a steady eye on.
— Steve Futterman, “BEST JAZZ ALBUMS OF 2001,” The New Yorker
…a musical voice to be reckoned with… at once Iyer’s most focused and expansive recording… improvisations that grandly refract the compositional forms through the individual and collective experiences and imaginations of the players… the CD’s 11 pieces invite the listener to indulge in the pleasure and challenge of experiencing myriad references and cross-conversations all at once, without ever feeling overwhelmed by sonic clutter… he sublimates his inspirations and influences into the kind of brilliantly executed original statements that refresh jazz as creative and even enlightening music for the 21st century.
— Derk Richardson, San Francisco Bay Guardian
**** (FOUR STARS) With each year, jazz increasingly becomes an international music, and pianist Iyer’s release dramatically underscores the point. Leading a one-of-a-kind quartet, Iyer–whose heritage is Indian–orchestrates a heady mix of jazz improvisation, traditional Indian scales and elements of Western classical composition. The result is a music so rhythmically gripping and harmonically provocative that one hardly can wait to hear what outlandish idea these players will hit upon next. On most tracks, Iyer’s vast waves of keyboard sounds inspire alto saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa, whose heaven-storming, post-Coltrane blasts show more discipline and clarity than ever before… This recording captures the unit at its best, digging deeply into the musical terrain where multiple ethnic styles converge. But even apart from its stylistic breakthroughs, “Panoptic Modes” offers a sensuousness of sound and vividness of performances that will seduce even the casual listener.
— Howard Reich, The Los Angeles Times
Dazzling… Melding Vedic chant and South Indian rhythms with the more obvious influences of Thelonious Monk and Bud Powell, Iyer creates a unique and vibrant sound, but one that’s highly accessible and solidly within the progressive end of the jazz spectrum. The most direct comparison that comes to mind is Randy Weston (high praise indeed) for his deeply spiritual bent, openness to diverse musical traditions and a strong indebtedness to Monk’s piano and compositional technique… This is a young musician of serious intent and significant accomplishment whose interests extend far beyond the keyboard. It will be fascinating to see where his journey leads.
— Joel Roberts, allaboutjazz.com
A recording that sends a ripple through the jazz universe… This music is something very special, assuming you’re a fan of modern jazz… Iyer writes music that is challenging to listen to, but he manages to speak his message with pristine clarity. He is much more than just a brilliant pianist… he is an artist who can reach deep into the chasms of human experience and thrust it out through his piano for all of us to experience with him. Iyer’s world is not a black and white one… it’s full of fractal shapes and questions hanging in the air… Iyer’s compositions are cutting edge. He is really taking music somewhere it hasn’t been before, and I feel certain this recording will be one of great interest to all musical innovators.
— Blaine Fallis, modernjazz.com

Iyer’s two previous releases were attempts to integrate the avant-garde, South Asian, and M-Base concepts that shaped him as a player and composer. On Panoptic Modes, Iyer continues to do this, but manages to arrive at the next level in terms of artistic focus and vision. With this new quartet music (three tracks are trio pieces), he continues to eschew the rhythmically obvious at all costs. His harmonic and formal concepts are as challenging as ever, yet his exceedingly difficult writing is rendered oddly accessible by the unperturbed facility of his band. Highly recommended.
–David Adler, All Music Guide

Pianist Iyer hammers out zig-zagging, off-kilter lines that spin your imagination and leave you dizzy. He’s got big ears for non-Western influences; his jazz credentials include work with Cecil Taylor, Steve Coleman and Roscoe Mitchell; and he’s worked in drum ’n’ bass, hip hop and harder-to-peg styles. An auspicious work.
— W. Kim Heron, Detroit Metro Times

Reviews of Memorophilia

“One of the 10 best albums of 1996”
— Bob Rusch, editor, Cadence Magazine
“MEMOROPHILIA on Asian Improv Records is outstanding.”
— Joe Finn, Jazz Friends Review
“His rhythmic imagination is fresh and exciting… He is an audacious and original player who has not only absorbed the African-American jazz tradition but has put his own personal stamp on it in ways rare for a 24-year-old.”
— Teed Rockwell, India Currents

“… (T)he powerful album … reveal(s) Iyer’s adventurous jazz concepts, eclectic sources of inspiration, and creative approaches to rhythm and space.”

— Derk Richardson, East Bay Express, Berkeley

“… Pianist Iyer has brought both his south Indian cultural sensibility and his angular, occasionally funk-driven M-Base propensity to the Bay Area’s Asian-American jazz scene, and his superb debut CD displays multiple facets of his eclectic jazz personality. The core group … is Iyer’s trio (but) the personnel changes … give Iyer different contexts for his intelligent compositions and thoughtful piano work.”

— Derk Richardson, San Francisco Guardian

“Iyer’s auspicious debut album … of his original compositions is vibrant with an Ellingtonian elegance. The music is thoughtfully conceived and gorgeously executed, its engaging melodicism and harmonic sophistication belying the composer’s youth.”

— Sam Prestianni, The Montclarion, Oakland

“… mature and fluent … Iyer shows off a prodigious technique and an acute improvisational ear on nine diverse selections… a genuine talent.”

— Caspar Melville, On the One

“… Iyer courageously combines the influences of jazz mavericks like Coltrane, the Art Ensemble of Chicago, and Cecil Taylor, as well as the classical Carnatic music of his Indian heritage… Iyer’s compositions weave these traditions together in fascinating rhythmic development and harmonic progression. Iyer’s compositions vary in mood and instrumental texture from the restless ‘March and Epilogue’ to the contemplative solo piano piece ‘Algebra,’ in which he takes a journey from the expanses of jazz to the inner musings of his mind.”

— Lumi Rolley, A. Magazine

“Piano marvel… Throughout the recording, Iyer’s fiery playing remains constant, a forceful though melodic style that owes as much to Randy Weston as it does to the rhythms of tabla master Zakir Hussain.”

— Matt Galloway, NOW Magazine, Toronto

“Judging by the company he keeps, pianist Iyer is heading for a substantial career… Iyer reminds me of several other younger pianists (Armen Donelian, Brad Meldhau, Renee Rosnees) who have absorbed a considerable variety of harmonic languages, from the obvious Monk and Ellington to Herbie Nichols, Elmo Hope and Andrew Hill… and can easily call up any of them. In Iyer’s case, he augments this with a keen interest in the classical music of South India (Iyer is of Indian descent).”

— John Baxter, Option magazine

“This is an impressive debut… There is little flash in his playing. It’s all substance. It’s most noticeable in the trio pieces “Stars Over Mars” and “Memorophilia” where he simply wades into the rhythm section with both hands, digging for the expressive core of the music. A member of a generation of pianists that often opts for style over substance, Iyer refers instead to the lineage of probing pianists, like Elmo Hope and Andrew Hill, who keep jabbing at the keyboard until they find something that wasn’t there before. The approach is essentially contrapuntal, sometimes even in the way it plays ideas against expectations.
“Iyer is blessed by the quality of his guests. Steve Coleman joins the trio on two pieces and provides concentrated, analytical focus. The band that Iyer calls Spirit Complex — with Lewis, Wong, and Kavee — is present for just two remarkable tracks, but on them it establishes a powerful ensemble identity, with an orchestral power coming from the trombone and tenor. Wong almost blows the house down on ‘March and Epilogue,’ and the closing ‘Segment for Sentiment #2’ is serene and profound.”

— Stuart Broomer, Cadence magazine

“This jazz recording is, without a doubt, one of the most outstanding examples of original contemporary jazz I can remember hearing in a long, long while. Vijay Iyer is a brilliant young pianist who, with his compliment of outstanding musical companions, serves up a delightful smorgasbord of jazz colors, harmonies, textures, and rhythms that make you think you’re in a surreal dream of jazz fantasy and excitement. I make that statement boldly, without reservation… The music is not your typical straight-ahead jazz jam session. It is a work of art with orchestral balance and dignity.”

— Rob Fisch, Jazz Friends Review

“The title ‘Memorophilia’ — coined by young jazz artist Vijay Iyer’s father — perfectly describes the remembering of African and Asian histories and the love for both cultures. Iyer, in the true tradition of jazz, has a critical socio-political outlook which underpins his musical being. At age 25, the self-taught musician has accumulated a vast talent; his influences include such avant-garde jazz kings as Cecil Taylor, Thelonious Monk, Sun Ra, John Coltrane, Steve Coleman, George Lewis, and local heroes Kash Killion and Francis Wong. In his relatively short Bay Area stint, Iyer has carved himself a position that radiates a musical expertise and a deep commitment to progressive ideals.

“Having recovered from studying physics at Yale, Iyer has gone on to a Ph.D. program in music technology at the University of California, Berkeley. His integrity and iconoclascism can be off-putting to the mainstream who are used to easy-listening and non-thinking music. Indeed, his compositions have a high aesthetic IQ that demands a discerning ear paying close attention. This CD is not for background listening; it is instead an education in harmony and melody. There are off-the-wall pieces that can sound cacaphonous to the casual listener, as well as gorgeous, elaborate piano solos.

“…His live shows at Yoshi’s in Oakland have been mesmerizing in their impeccable improvisations with his trio. The sonic sophistication makes him a rare architect of sound that as yet is still considered too fringe for the status quo.

“Jazz performers are historically strongly individualistic and serve as voices for the down-trodden. Iyer is forging a new language that incorporates his South-Indian roots and a deep respect for African culture. These experiments in artistic truth forge a palette of the soul: a much-needed panacea for the social ills of scientific-rational thinking that have come to overtake contemporary society.

“Iyer has cultivated a new freedom for his spirit in musical canvasses. His world is serious yet charming, real yet illusory, imaginative yet practical. Finally, I venerate Vijay as a true artiste whose positivistic and healing nature make him a modern shaman.”

— Sanxe Loveji, Infusion (a webzine for the global, mobile, cyber South Asian)

Chicago Reader Critic’s Choice

November 1, 1996

Vijay Iyer

Pianist Vijay Iyer, the son of immigrants from southern India, takes his heritage quite seriously; that he has managed to honor it while creating vital and thought-provoking jazz suggests that we should take him seriously in turn. In his liner notes for his debut album, Memorophilia (Asian Improv Records), Iyer stresses two themes: his affinity, as a person of color, to the African-American musical tradition, and the impact of karnatak classical music of southern India — specifically its complex yet soulful rhythms. You hear the latter perhaps most clearly on “Algebra,” a solo piano track from Iyer’s album, but it informs a great deal of his music, finding a common ground with the propulsive Africanized rhythms that Art Blakey and John Coltrane brought to jazz in the 50s and 60s. [The 25-year-old] already shows maturity with respect to technique, a fair amount of restraint as an improviser, and a willingness to dig more deeply than many musicians of his experience. These things — along with his ability to convincingly lead on jams that range from the catchily accessible to the fiercely atonal — make his album a delightfully strong document. Iyer attracted some impressive hired guns to play on Memorophilia, including trombonist George Lewis and alto saxist Steve Coleman, both former Chicagoans…

Reviews of Live Performances

Koncepts Cultural Gallery’s 5th Annual Double-Up! Duet Series: Vijay Iyer & Kevin Mingus, February 8, 1997

“The Oakland Museum’s James Moore Theater was only about two-thirds full for last Saturday night’s doubleheader of pianist Vijay Iyer with bassist Kevin Mingus and pianist Horace Tapscott with saxophonist Michael Session, but the 120 people on hand were treated to two superb examples of exploratory improvisation… 25-year-old Indian-American Iyer, attired in a brilliant white tunic and sandals, and 20-year-old Los-Angeles-born Mingus, equally but differently natty in a suit and two-tone shoes, began from a place of quiet reflection — spare, angular notes and chords on the piano, long bowed tones from the bass — and took each other on a sixty-minute journey through snapping funk, stormy post-bebop, romantic Gershwin-like rhapsodies, and sharp-edged blues… [They] achieved occasional mind-melding moments that eclipsed their obvious technical facility. Iyer, prominent on the local scene with his [bands] and his excellent Memorophilia CD, is a strikingly cerebral player who scatters fascinating, question-raising references — Herbie Hancock? McCoy Tyner? Ran Blake? — into his multifaceted approach. Mingus… has already developed an impressive mastery of the instrument.”
–Derk Richardson, East Bay Express

Chicago Asian-American Jazz Fest, November 3, 1996
” Another young player from the West Coast, Vijay Iyer, set the stage on fire with his melodic finger work, drawing strong similarities with the loose and free piano playing of Cecil Taylor and the complexities of Thelonious Monk, combined with Indian influences.”

— K. McCall & D. Sora, Nichibei Journal

” Skilled musicians in their own right, pianist Iyer and alto saxophonist [Rudresh] Manhanthappa also represented two of the South Asian American community’s brightest talents. The pairing of the two, Iyer from San Francisco, Manhanthappa from Chicago, seemed almost natural as the two played harmoniously on rich ballads and scintillating free bop sessions.”

— O. Wang, Asian Week

Vijay Iyer’s Poisonous Prophets, March 3, 1996
“In the 1970s, the music of Iyer’s Poisonous Prophets … might have been called fusion. But during its set before eighty to one hundred people at Yoshi’s, the band transcended jazz-rock by seamlessly integrating a wide array of influences, from Herbie Hancock to George Clinton, from acoustic and electric Miles to the stop-and-go time signatures of Steve Coleman’s M-Base collective. With Bilmes and Kavee laying down funky grooves, Iyer swerving from judiciously-placed chords to cleanly-articulated runs, and Ellman injecting mostly linear solos and counterpoints, the group had no difficulty balancing dynamics or juggling styles. Nothing ever sounded forced or out of whack, even [the] trickiest time shifts, and the pieces, mostly newly composed by Iyer and Bilmes strung together in three long segments, appealed to both the body and the mind. The interplay was jazz-rooted, and Iyer is one of the most fascinating jazz pianists around…

“But Iyer was onto something closer to the heart of the ‘new jazz thing’ when he explained that he came up with the name Poisonous Prophets because of the ‘hallucinogenic’ quality of the band’s sound. These musicians are using all the musical resources at their command to distort time and space to alter consciousness, and allow new possibilities to manifest themselves with all the surprise and wonder demanded of jazz.”

— Derk Richardson, East Bay Express

More Reviews!

“From Duke Ellington and John Coltrane to Henry Threadgill and John Zorn, jazz musicians have long flirted with Eastern influences. Yet these have been largely casual encounters, prompted by a desire to widen jazz’s palette, rather than systematic attempts at fusion.
The latest seekers of Afro-Asian synthesis are different. They are Asian-American jazz musicians, passionate about jazz but eager to affirm their ancestral identity. Their body of work has grown to several dozen records, and the larger culture is starting to take notice.

Asian-American jazz ranges from [Jon] Jang’s interpretations of classical Chinese songs to the experimentalisms of [Fred] Ho and [Jason] Hwang to Vijay Iyer’s bracingly expressionist jazz…

For Mr. Hwang, 43, and Mr. Iyer, 26, combining Asian music and jazz is an almost subliminal process… “I’ve lived my own version of what Indian culture means,” he says. “I refuse to dress up contemporary ideas in bangles and bindis.” There is nothing antiquarian about Mr. Iyer… Full of pulsating blues, Mr. Iyer’s own recordings suggest an ardent student of late-60’s jazz — which, in fact, he is. But on closer examination the rhythmic cycles of the South Indian music he absorbed as a child begin to appear. Mr. Iyer, who sees “the focus on rhythmic detail and improvisation” as a bridge between jazz and South Indian music, often builds suspense around a rhythmic cadence known as a tihai. (His new recording for octet, “Architextures,” introduces a young Indian-American alto saxophonist, Rudresh Mahanthappa…)

— Adam Shatz, The New York Times

“… Armed with one of the most creative and compelling musical imaginations on the Bay Area’s new jazz scene, as well as a piano technique that allows him to realize his concepts with power and grace…”
— Derk Richardson, The East Bay Express

“… one of the finest young musicians working in the Bay Area … Iyer is an inventive, challenging musician who manages to be thoughtful and soulful at the same time.”

— J. H. Tompkins, San Francisco Bay Guardian

1996 San Francisco Bay Guardian Outstanding Local Discovery (“Goldie”) award citation

September 18, 1996

The stories of sound

MUSIC IN THE Bay Area is happening these days like it hasn’t since the East Bay’s hip-hop scene exploded in the mid-’80s. It’s a constantly mutating world of jazz, techno, ambient, and improvisational experimentation, fueled by the creative energy and determination of young players like pianist-bandleader-composer Vijay Iyer.
Iyer has played and recorded with a wide range of musicians: he leads the Vijay Iyer Trio, Spirit Complex, and Poisonous Prophets; and he’s worked with people such as M-Base leader Steve Coleman, iconoclastic hip-hop group Midnight Voices, trombonist George Lewis, and saxophonist Francis Wong.

While the young jazz players who have flourished in SoMa clubs during recent years have received more attention, Iyer, the son of South Indian immigrants, has taken the challenge of plowing new musical ground. As part of a generation of Indian Americans now growing into adulthood, Iyer is among those beginning to explore issues of social, political, and cultural identity.

“In South Indian music, like African music, the role of personal narrative is central,” he says. “The sound becomes the carrier for the identity.”

Iyer delineated his musical vision in the notes to his album Memorophilia, released last fall on Asian Improv Records: “I found myself most attracted to music that lay outside of conventional teachings: Ellington, Monk, Cecil Taylor…. To my ears, these artists possess a certain ‘cry.’ ”

In a recent interview he elaborated on the point: “To me it is what this music is finally about: radical expressions of alternative identity, challenges to mainstream aesthetics, and expression of the collective voices of an oppressed group.”

Memorophilia presents this challenge with a rich, warm, and compelling collection of songs. Iyer’s playing manages to be understated and explosive at the same time — a sonic tapestry that is full of invention and surprise.

Raised in Rochester, N.Y., Iyer was trained as a classical violinist but also played the piano while growing up. He went to Yale to study math and physics, and though his affinity with jazz blossomed in New Haven, he came to UC Berkeley after graduation to pursue doctoral studies in physics.

After receiving his masters, Iyer became “kind of disillusioned with physics academia, and I saw the musical part of my life at odds with the physics part of it. I couldn’t devote enough time to either to be satisfied, and music offered me much more immediate gratification.”

The decision meant two things: Iyer switched to an interdisciplinary graduate program he created that combines music, musicology, computer science, and cognitive science. And it meant that he was in a position to concentrate on his music.

The results are obvious. As Iyer puts it, “Things are just rolling along. I feel like I’m growing and playing with some amazing people.”

— J. H. Tompkins, San Francisco Bay Guardian

Option magazine’s F.Y.I.

November-December 1996

Vijay Iyer

“All the elements in my music come from life experience,” says pianist Vijay Iyer, whose parents emigrated from the south of India to the U.S. in the 1960s. Sitting at a battered upright in his small Berkeley apartment, Iyer demonstrates with an unlikely example — a spare, captivating version of Thelonious Monk’s standard, “Round Midnight.”
“Monk’s playing and his composition is how I learned this kind of music,” Iyer says when the piece is finished. “The focus on rhythm, that’s how I relate to South Indian music, although how this influence shapes my music is not immediately apparent to most people.”

Iyer’s 1995 album Memorophilia (AsianImprov) is an impressive, sometimes stunning debut that includes work with a trio, a quintet and a quartet called the Poisonous Prophets, featuring electric guitar and bass. (Iyer recently finished the follow-up, Architextures, but is still looking for a label.) And though he regularly performs with a diverse cast of musicians — from saxophonist Steve Coleman to the hip-hop group Midnight Voices — Iyer’s playing is always marked by an acute sensitivity to his environment and a style that is understated but powerful.

On “Peripatetics,” one of Memorophilia’s strongest original compositions, raw, dissonant clusters give way to swinging bursts of notes up and down the keyboard before the piece settles into thick, angular chords. Despite near-constant changes in style, tempo and key, “Peripatetics” — like all Iyer’s work — contains a deeply personal quality that he says links him to the tradition of jazz.

“In South Asian music, like African music, the role of personal narrative in music is important,” he says. “The improviser has a sound, which is more than just the timbre — it’s the whole approach to making music. I’m working in this music which is basically an African-American form, but it’s one that’s very accomodating. It lets you be yourself.”

— J. H. Tompkins, Option

From Internet music enthusiasts

“I’d heard Vijay with his trio a few times locally… and loved it. He’s got a dark, thoughtful, quirky sound. Sounds to me like 1/3 Monk, 1/3 McCoy, 1/3 all new. I picked up ‘Memorophilia’ at the CD release party here… Great stuff… The biggest surprise to me was the non-trio tracks. There’s good stuff from Steve Coleman, George Lewis, Kash Killion and more, in a few interesting settings… The liner notes are almost as good as the music… [He] has a great deal of respect and admiration for an impressive number of influences… Buy. Listen. Read. Repeat.”
— Charles Lawrence, posting to rec.music.bluenote

“Allow me to say that Vijay’s album is IMO excellent — fine playing, and compositions that are rather more than just blowing heads. All the Andrew Hill fans here might especially want to try it on, as Vijay is one of comparatively few pianists I’ve heard with a strong & honest Hill influence… The disc also offers a rare glimpse of new trombone by George Lewis in an open-jazz framework… Vijay is a talented cat who deserves wide availability, and has done a lot for the SF/Berkeley new music scene.”

— P. Murphy, also on rec.music.bluenote

“Many of you have already heard ‘Off the Top’ which is on the rmb compilation and the other track with Coleman works just as well. The trio tracks are generally quiet and introspective and the [Poisonous Prophets] track is also excellent with some nice guitar work from Liberty Ellman. But, for me, the prize tracks are the quintet tracks which are delightfully intricate and packed with emotion. … Very recommended.”

— Walt Davis, also on rec.music.bluenote

“Vijay Iyer is a hip, young, bay area pianist. His style is exciting, invigorating and fresh… You can hear many influences in his music such as Geri Allen or McCoy Tyner … but Vijay’s no copycat; he sucks in his influences and spreads them into his own sound.”

— Cathy Austin, “Nubian Roots,” KZSU Stanford