Sign up for our free newsletter

Free D.C. news, delivered to your inbox daily.

It’s always tricky to discuss artistic intent, especially when it comes to a frequently wordless mode of expression such as jazz. But New York–based pianist Vijay Iyer hasn’t exactly been silent about what his work is supposed to mean. In What Language?, the Indian-American musician’s 2003 “song cycle” with rapper/poet Mike Ladd, dealt with, according to Iyer, the recent airport ordeals of “fellow brown-skinned travelers.” And Iyer’s Blood Sutra, also from 2003, was a concept album about, Iyer said, “New York after 9/11 and trying to make sense of it all, as we all were.”

Next to those statements, the notes to Reimagining, Iyer’s fifth and latest album as a leader, might seem innocuous: “Rebuild the world around you, imagining an end to the suffering you see.” So might the fact that the new disc takes its title from closing track “Imagine,” a pastoral and, yes, wordless version of John Lennon’s 1971 hit. But “Imagine” ain’t just a pretty tune anymore—Clear Channel Communications, the country’s largest radio operator, saw to that when it placed the original on a list of songs deemed potentially inappropriate for airplay following the attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center. And Iyer, a post-free-jazzer who describes avant-gardists Ornette Coleman and Anthony Braxton as “heroes,” has always been about more than mere entertainment.

Accordingly, Reimagining sports its share of references to current events. The punk– meets– New Thing ballad “Song for Midwood,” for example, is about Brooklyn’s Little Pakistan, a neighborhood that has been hit hard by recent FBI and INS sweeps. (A 2003 Village Voice article claimed that Midwood’s population had declined by some 10,000 residents since 9/11.) And according to Ladd, the not-so-futuristic figure alluded to in stutter-funk blues “Infogee’s Cakewalk” is “all of us” and how we react to “the so-called War on Terror, which never ends [and] has no boundaries.” Iyer has said that such gestures are intended to provoke questions among listeners. But perhaps the most salient question raised by Iyer’s post– Patriot Act discography is this: Is it possible for instrumental music to convey such specific meanings?

It’s probably safe to say that no one ever learned anything about the Civil Rights movement simply by listening to, say, John Coltrane’s “Alabama” or Charles Mingus’ “Fables of Faubus.” And few, if any, could guess at Reimagining’s political subtext without the CD case or a quarter-hour spent on Google. At best, astute listeners will probably notice that Iyer’s band is far more democratic-sounding than most: The seasoned, interracial quartet—which also includes saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa, bassist Stephan Crump, and Roy Haynes’ 18-year-old drummer grandson, Marcus Gilmore—makes honest-to-goodness ensemble music, as opposed to jazz created by a loose grouping of freelancers.

Album-opener “Revolutions,” like the rest of Reimagining, straddles the line between composition and improvisation to the point that it’s nearly impossible to discern the difference. The lyrical, fleet-fingered leader often sounds as if he’s playing some kind of sped-up Keith Jarrett riff even when he’s winging it. Mahanthappa, an alto player in the out-there but tuneful mold of Cecil Taylor sideman Jimmy Lyons, delivers dense clusters of notes yet never seems more than a beat away from the central melody. And, most surprisingly, Crump and Gilmore come across as taut even as they tweak, responding to Iyer and Mahanthappa’s vamps and extemporizations with flowing rock- and R&B-informed grooves.

Reimagining’s melodically communal vibe is especially impressive given the quartet’s aesthetic proximity to the squall and sprawl of free jazz. Many of that tradition’s gestures have been internalized—check out Mahanthappa’s honking on the stormy “Phalanx”—yet its anarchy has been rejected. The album is full of actual songs, and as much as Iyer’s sometimes dense playing is reminiscent of abstraction-pushing postboppers such as Taylor and Andrew Hill, he is just as often his own man, willing to set aside chops for the sake of a strong composition. Iyer’s minimalist, drumlike pecking on “Song for Midwood” is a perfect illustration—and it also hints suggestively at his roots as a teenage Public Enemy buff.

Still, Reimagining is by no means the political statement It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back was back in 1988. Iyer did the best he could by closing with “Imagine,” a universally recognized melody that sends a decidedly anti-war (and less so, anti-Dubya) message. But it’s not so much what Iyer is trying to say as how his group ends up saying it. That Reimagining’s final track is a clue to its maker’s intent may be lost on a majority of jazz fans. But that Iyer’s deeply inclusive latest is something other than the standard-issue blowing session will be apparent to even the most casual of listeners.

Another rising young jazz star, Tord Gustavsen will probably never be mistaken for a message-pusher or protest-march type. The Oslo, Norway– based pianist is much more inclined to talk up his music’s “sensuous foundations” and “strength through solid mildness” than to unpack his ideological leanings (whatever those might be).

On first spin, at least, Gustavsen’s 2003 debut, Changing Places, seemed the perfect musical expression of his political nonengagement: a sleek exercise in exposed-brick pianism whose classic-sounding melodies evaporated almost as soon as they hit the air. Subsequent listens, however, revealed a trio that, like Iyer’s quartet, is structurally adventurous, eager to eschew trad jazz’s play-the-head-then-solo rule book for something less rigid.

Gustavsen’s follow-up, The Ground, is neither a retreat from nor an advance over its predecessor. If anything, the album is even more indeterminate. In a recent online interview, the conservatory-trained pianist hinted that the ballad-heavy new disc was barely sketched out before the trio entered the studio. “[S]ome ideas of musical form were there,” Gustavsen said. “But overall the individual parts and the interaction between us were very improvised.”

As far as this type of playing goes, opening cut “Tears Transforming” is as good a representation as any. Gustavsen never takes his hands away from the ivories. But neither does he play a solo per se. Instead, he and the rhythm section, bassist Harald Johnsen and drummer Jarle Vespestad (also a member of the improv-electronics group Supersilent), flirt with the song’s melancholic theme throughout, dancing around its minor-key melodies without ever settling into discernible patterns.

About halfway through The Ground, Johnsen and Vespestad both step up and take bona fide solos (on “Sentiment” and “Colours of Mercy,” respectively). But these subtle, skittery moments merely highlight the album’s lack of boldfaced virtuosity—not to mention Gustavsen’s dedication to songwriting. Perhaps the most extreme example of the latter is the Carpenters-style pop of “Edges of Happiness,” which is more or less a rhythm track awaiting a singer.

In that online interview, Gustavsen talked at length about The Ground’s “twofold urge”: the mixing of his trio’s longstanding ethereality with newly pronounced blues and gospel influences. (See “Kneeling Down” and the title track, in particular.) “To put it into slogans,” he said, “it’s about sky and earth, spirit and body, yin and yang, thinking and feeling.” What he must at least intuit is that it’s also about how he makes music. The most important “twofold urge” on The Ground is the way it tries to reconcile what Gustavsen picked up from his childhood listening—conventionally composed hymns and lullabies—with jazz, which is, at heart, an improvisational music.

Obviously, jazz musicians have navigated this territory before. (Albert Ayler’s strident yet tuneful discography springs to mind.) Gustavsen’s approach, however, is novel in that he seldom, if ever, segregates the tune from the improv. If Reimagining blurs the line between the two, then The Ground completely obliterates it. Granted, this music is probably too soft-serve by half to appeal to those who want some real bite out of their jazz. But were they to give Gustavsen a shot, they might be surprised at just how solid “solid mildness” can be. CP