Fieldwork in the 2010s

Vijay Iyer is in residency at The Stone in New York City this week, and one of the many bands he’s featuring is Fieldwork, the trio with Iyer on piano, Steve Lehman on sax, and Tyshawn Sorey on drums.

All three have worked with Pi Recordings, separately and as the full trio. That label has found a niche in a very modern jazz of exciting complexity; I’ve read at least one review that wondered if the sound is too cold or abstract, but I love that sound. Fieldwork, with albums on Pi dating back to 2002, certainly fit the bill, with heavy-handed piano chords and drum-machine-inspired percussion (originally by Elliot Humberto Kavee, a late ’90s Bay Area transplant to New York). For an acoustic trio, they had a stunningly futuristic sound, one that I referred to as “steel and glass.”

Of course, times change, and the music Iyer, Lehman, and Sorey play today is necessarily the descendant of last decade’s creations. Here’s the trio in another appearance at The Stone, filmed earlier this year. It’s one long improvisation, with flashes of steel-and-glass at the 5- and 9-minute marks, and a terrific slow groove that starts just after 17:20, but the core sound has shifted, and the fierceness feels more dissipated. (Which, mathematically, isn’t a surprise in a 53-minute piece.)

While it would have been cool to see Fieldwork reprise those earlier compositions, it’s easy to understand why they didn’t. It’s part of the evolution of the music — and on a simpler note, re-learning and re-rehearsing the tunes just might not be worth the time.¬†You don’t have to know the old Fieldwork to feel the excitement in their current incarnation, though. I like to think these particular “reunions” are more about friends enjoying some music together (while giving one another a paying gig, of course). That’s also what I was envisioning with Jim Black’s “Not Bloodcount” gig of a year ago.

Fans are a double-edged sword. The good ones want to believe in the progress of the music, and yet, even they want to pull musicians back into playing the old stuff. We’re a difficult lot.