Vijay Iyer

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If the title of pianist Vijay Iyer’s new album, Historicity, doesn’t explain what it’s about, the track list should do the trick: The project includes six cover tunes that place Stevie Wonder and M.I.A. alongside Leonard Bernstein and jazzers mainstream (Ronnie Foster) and extreme (Julius Hemphill, Andrew Hill). Simply put, Historicity finds Iyer, along with bassist Stephan Crump and drummer Marcus Gilmore, exploring his expressionistic jazz within the context of musical history. While far from easy listening, it’s arguably his most approachable recording yet. In his liner notes, Iyer explains that his covers strive for “conversation[s] between the original work and something else entirely,” thus granting permission to consider the trio’s versions in the context of the originals—which is where things get interesting. Wonder’s “Big Brother” and Bernstein’s “Somewhere,” for example, become darker in Iyer’s hands; the former, a mockery of pandering politicians, was never terribly sunny (though the humor is entirely absent here), but “Somewhere” was once West Side Story’s soaring promise of brighter days. Iyer refracts the tune with an 11/8 rhythm, staggering its pace and rendering it strangely mechanical, and moves the melody into a sinister minor key. Does he subvert the original or merely acknowledge the doom met by the play’s hopeful singers? And does the newfound bleakness on “Big Brother” express present-day hopelessness or issue a warning that citizens can no longer be complacent? By introducing these contexts, Iyer expands his conversation to include the listener. The four originals that appear on the album, however, are more inscrutable. The title track builds from a troubled melody to a protean set of vamps and riffs; it’s high drama, but Gilmore’s consistent freeform rhythm makes the shift difficult to interpret. The closing “Segment for Sentiment #2,” meanwhile, maintains its noir-ish melody, but steeps it ever further into schizophrenia: Crump plays the tune while the piano swirls around him in eerie voices. “Helix” makes some sense, as it spirals outward and its long repetitions suggest a panoramic view of a DNA strand. It may be hard to grasp Iyer’s statement, but it’s fun to try, and the unique conceptions of both originals and covers suggest clues aplenty. Yet it’s just as exciting to imagine that Historicity’s equation has no solution and Iyer, with this compelling, provocative work, is still writing his place in history.