Tirtha and the ‘Asian Thing’

Vijay Iyer, Prasanna, Nitin MittaTirtha (ACT, 2011)

Iyer/Prasanna/Mitta -- Tirtha (ACT, 2011)Tirtha is a trio jazz album with Indian influences and a tabla in place of a drum kit. But the composing isn’t overtly “Indian,” and in fact, most of the album follows modern-jazz trajectories. Vijay Iyer’s “steel and glass” sound on piano is intact, and Prasanna’s guitar is a springy, jazzy machine that only occasionally touches on Indian scales.

This is a good thing. I don’t mind hearing albums that mesh jazz and Indian music, but Iyer, Prasanna, and tabla player Nitin Mitta shouldn’t feel obligated to create that kind of hybrid just because their names are Indian.

The band originated with a 2007 concert to celebrate the 60th anniversary of India’s independence. Iyer writes in the liner notes:

Heritage matters to me, but I’ve steered clear of fusion experiments that attempt to mix styles — to “create something,” as John Coltrane famously admonished, ‘more with labels, you see, than true evolution.’ For this event, I hoped to avoid those pitfalls, and perhaps instead offer something a little more personal.”

What speaks to me is that Iyer didn’t feel trapped by any sense of obligation. I’m Japanese-American, but I’m fourth-generation, with a heritage that’s more L.A. than Kyoto. I don’t even enjoy Japanese food that much. I do take interest in Japanese culture, but if I were to write, say, a novel, I don’t know that the characters would come out very Asian at all.

(On an almost related note: I’m reading a novel about Japan, An Artist of the Floating World, by Kazuo Ishiguro. Who translated it? No one — Ishiguro is British. He also wrote Remains of the Day, the very non-Japanese, non-WWII novel whose main character was played by Anthony Hopkins in the movie.)

While Tirtha does not attempt to be “Indian jazz,” it still willingly taps Indian influences. Prasanna’s composition “Tribal Wisdom” has him adding Indian inflections to his guitar work, and it also features a lengthy and stunning tabla solo by Mitta.

“Gauntlet,” though, is a catchy bit of cerebral rock; it has a simple rhythm, but a prog band could have loads of fun with it. “Duality” generously sprinkles Iyer’s piano sound, cascading like hailstones on a sidewalk against the polyrhythms set up by Mitta’s tabla and Prasanna’s small guitar figures.


I bought this album on a whim at a terrific Ashland, Oregon store called The Music Co-Op. It’s a store with jazz and world music sections — real sections, not the kind curated by “meh, whatever” staff members. Economics dictate that they can’t go too deep, but they had Tirtha. I was happy to reward their good taste.

Score One for San Jose Jazz

Have I complained about the San Jose Jazz Festival in these pages? Yes? I’ll do it again anyway.

Photo lifted from El Observador. Click for an article with a more positive outlook on the festival.The summertime festival is great if you’re into pop, hip-hop, swing, or Latin jazz. Deeper jazz — not to mention anything off the main drag — is out. Even smooth jazz was hard to find, last time I checked.

Yes, I’m being a snob. And hating is easy; you could argue I should join SJ Jazz and make my opinion heard. But be realistic. The festival wants open-air crowds of smiling families and happy first dates. Danceable, drinkable bands have pushed even bebop and Coltrane clones to the fringes of the agenda. Suggestions of free jazz and cerebral quasi-classical improvising would be met with hard stares. Plus, I’d honestly feel bad about trying to rock the boat without first putting in my dues as a volunteer — and if I had that kind of time, I’d still be doing my KZSU show.

Besides, I don’t need for San Jose to have an avant-garde angle. I’ve already got the likes of the Switchboard Festival, SF Offside, the sfSound concerts (including the upcoming Tape Music Festival), Other Minds, the Outsound New Music Summit … and other options I’ve just insulted by leaving them off the list. There are also the weekly and monthly series that keep forging ahead, as you can see on the calendars at transbaycalendar.org or bayimproviser.com. A festival crowd would be nice to provide for some of these deserving artists, but San Jose is a commerce town. The invigorated downtown, heartening as it is to see, is all about prime-time attractions.

Not that they never tried. It was probably 20 years ago, literally, that I spent a day at the jazz festival and saw a solo pianist at the Museum of Art. Can’t recall the name, but he was an Eastern European. And he put on an exhilarating set of dazzling, classical-influenced playing, full of big low-register chords and relentless hammering. (By the way, I like San Jose’s museum. It’s technology-obsessed, as the whole community is, but the museum at least presents its technology with question marks.)

Surprises like that pianist have become rare for the San Jose Jazz Festival, although I’d bet they’d be open to someone like Lisa Mezzacappa who’s played Monterey. I have to admit, too, that San Jose Jazz has a sincere interest in world music (the fusion-y, westernized kind, at least), and admirably, they support school jazz bands. But if I want to get creative music going in my hometown — and the little voice in my head always chastises me for never even trying — I’d be better off finding a small South-of-First Street gallery that’s open to a DIY series. Maybe someday.

My point in writing this, though, is more hopeful: San Jose Jazz has cracked the mold. For their winter mini-festival in early March, they’re bringing in Vijay Iyer.

In other words, the organization has booked someone I actually want to see.

Source: San Jose Jazz; click to go thereThe album Accelerando landed Iyer at the top of some prominent mainstream “best-of” lists, so he’s actually an obvious festival choice. But he’s still Vijay Iyer. He makes exciting music. He slashed-and-burned with the trio Fieldwork. And his presence gives me a reason to actually attend a downtown San Jose jazz show. (The show is Friday, March 15.)

And while I’m down there, maybe I’ll even swing by South First Street and daydream about that South Bay series.

Where Hafez Is Coming From

I hope DJ Fo doesn’t mind me cribbing from his recent KZSU show to mention a couple of notes about Hafez Modirzadeh, who’ll play his blend of Persian scales and jazz dynamics at Kuumbwa Jazz Center (Santa Cruz) on Weds., Oct. 10.

It’s a CD release show for Post-Chromodal Out!, now out on Pi Recordings.

One important point first: The accent is on the third syllable:  MO_deer_ZAH_day.

The other bit of news:  The show will be Modirzadeh and pianist Vijay Iyer playing as a duet — one set only, starting 7:00 p.m. — and it will feature a normally tuned piano. Modirzadeh does promise that they’ll end the show with a tuning surprise, to add a flavor of his system and encourage the audience to “retune” their own thinking, as he put it.

The piano is the part that fascinates me most about Post-Chromodal Out!, just because the sound is so alien. The chords come out warped; they’re the sound of an optical illusion. So, the fact that the whole show won’t use a retuned piano is a little disappointing. Then again, my ears have never fully adjusted to microtonal systems, and while they sound OK to me on horns (some notes sound unexpectedly “off,” but it’s easy to digest), the keyboards have a mildly seasick sound to me.

The Kuumbwa crowds are always warm and friendly, but I don’t know if they’re ready for an hour and a half of that.

Still, the idea of the specially tuned piano fascinates me. Modirzadeh told Fo they’ve been doing the retuning in Iran, to match Persian scales, for a long time, so the process is routine.

Modirzadeh doesn’t use a straight Persian scale, though. The music is based on what he calls “weavings,” a criss-crossing of equal temperament and other culture’s musics (Persian is just one ingredient among many) to produce scales that aren’t necessarily symmetric.

He told Fo he developed this system by “looking outside myself” — by studying the African-American experience (which is crucial to jazz history) and by listening to Flamenco music, of all things, probing its similarities to Persian music. I’ve just started listening to Modrizadeh’s older album Bemsha Alegria, and the Flamenco influence there seems clear.

But back to the piano. Iyer had to rediscover the instrument as he went along, because under the new tuning system, his instincts couldn’t blindly guide him. He learned by playing, reacting to the sounds of his own instrument. I liked Modirzadeh’s description of Iyer allowing himself to be vulnerable by stepping into this process.

The same would be true of other musicians, of course. I think I remember Robert Fripp once saying it takes three years for a musician to truly, properly learn a scale or mode. But with piano, you’ve got those chords. In my head, it seems like an extra layer of things that can go wrong, an n-squared problem. Anyway, I’m impressed.

The interview was great and was accented by Fo’s deep knowledge of world music. You really should check out his Jazz Observer blog.

Modirzadeh has also been interviewed by The World, which produced a 3.5-minute story that includes interview snippets with Iyer.

Iyer Alone

Vijay IyerSolo (ACT, 2010)

As much as critics raved about it, the inclusion of “Human Nature” on Vijay Iyer’s solo piano album gave me pause.

Look, I understand people’s love for Michael Jackson, and I can respect it — but only when we’re talking about the driven, funky Michael Jackson, not the diluted lite-rock version.

The track comes up first on Solo, and possibly because I don’t know the song, I didn’t recognize what was happening. (I’ll sometimes listen to an album “blind” at first, without consulting the track list.) I heard a lyrical, pretty piece — very ECM-like — with a recognizably repeating bassline and a rustling, shifting feeling. A peaceful air, but busy with lots of little notes, lost of activity.

All right, it’s pretty good. And then the chorus kicked in. I’d been tricked into actually liking the song.

In Iyer’s earlier work, I’d focused on the steely modernity. Solo presents a more lyrical side, forcing you to concentrate more on the details of Iyer’s playing. I don’t want to call the music new-agey, because I tend to use that term as an insult. But it’s got a contemplative melodic sense, while still sometimes peppering the ears with 32nd-note teletype raindrops.

About half of the album is covers, including a couple of slowly savored Duke Ellington pieces. When it comes to Iyer’s own compositions, you get more of that serious, lyrical bent, where the music hovers and opens up space for thinking.

But Iyer still has that stormy, forceful style at his beck and call. The closing “One for Blount” (a Sun Ra nod) is one example. So is “Epistrophy,” a particularly interesting cover that gets reflected in a cracked mirror, with clumps of Monkian chords distorted and flung about. The theme is immediately familiar even though it comes to your ears in shards. “Autoscopy” includes some scattery fast work but gives way to a flowing, rainy-day cascading, used as backdrop for a slower melody.

The Bunky Green Challenge

I’m going to accept the challenge Ethan Iverson puts forth on his Do the Math blog.  I’m going to find out more about Bunky Green.

Iverson’s thoughts on Green’s 2006 album, Another Place, which includes Jason Moran on piano: “Wow!  They still make jazz records like this, full of this kind of grease and fire?”

Then there’s this, about Green himself:  “He turns 75 in two days and Steve Coleman wouldn’t exist without him.”

And I like that Iverson uses the word “futuristic,” the same word I use to describe that kind of other-plane soloing Coleman is known for. (And Green, apparently.)  The kind that’s not simply outside the changes; it’s using an unorthodox math to create a specific, deliberate sound, a new structure around the changes. Iverson’s choice of the word makes me feel a little bit proud, like I’ve gotten the answer right on a hard quiz.

From the sound snippets on Do the Math, taken from Green’s work on the Elvin Jones album Time Capsule, Green and Coleman do have a lot in common — the major difference being their eras. Green plays against rich, post-bop backdrops, traditional sounding stuff until his solo opens the dimensional portal and lets all the aliens in.  Coleman benefitted from a 1980s era obsessed with new things and new technology, where M-base could thrive and define some of its own rules. I remember getting so happily lost in Coleman’s Black Science album — funky, driven, and complex, but without a compass during the improvised sections.

Another descendent of Green and Coleman might be the geometric, steel-and-glass sounds of musicians like Vijay Iyer and Rudresh Mahanthappa. And hey look — the thing that started Iverson talking about Green was the band Apex, which includes Green and Mahanthappa and apparently recorded last week, a session to be released in the fall on Pi Recordings. Check out Ben Ratliff’s review of their show in the New York Times.

The Long Form

All About Jazz is running this long interview with pianist Vijay Iyer.

I won’t lie to you: I haven’t even started reading the thing yet.  I just wanted to celebrate the fact that they run interviews like this at all.  (Charlie Hunter was another recent subject.)  In this age of dying media, long-form magazine-like content is rapidly becoming a casualty.

It’s partly because of the shift to the Internet — yes, you have an infinite number of pages at your disposal, but publishers can’t command the same level of ad rates as they could in print, making it difficult to pay the writers who have the talent to produce compelling, long-form stories.

On top of that, you have an audience that’s increasingly geared toward quick-hit, Digg-style news bites, or dumb short blog entries like this one, rather than nonfiction as a form of literature.  But that’s too easy a target. More of the blame goes to the monetary side. The audience is there, but the avenues for creating the content are limited.

So, the publication of an extended interview like this one — or the long interviews and analyses that Ethan Iverson has been doing on Do the Mathis cause for celebration.

Now, I’d better stop procrastinating and go read the thing. And congratulations to Iyer for what’s been a spectacular 2009, at least in terms of recognition. It’s well deserved.

Tracking “Dogon A.D.”

dogonadcoverEarly on in my obsession with Tim Berne, I learned he was heavily inspired by Julius Hemphill’s Dogon A.D. album. And I’ve longed to hear it since, to get a sense of how Berne’s career germinated. It’s like being a scientist tracing matter back to the Big Bang (except my job was a lot easier).

Problem was, Dogon A.D. is long out of print and not likely to resurface. In an interview, Berne said he’d tried once to get the rights to reissue it but was stymied. (He did manage to reissue Blue Boye, a solo Hemphill album. Berne witnessed the recording process, as he notes in this great interview on Ethan Iverson’s Do the Math.)

How quickly things change. “Dogon A.D.,” the title track, was briefly available on the Destination: OUT site (a great study aid for free jazz listeners), so I got to hear the original’s funky pulsing. And now, cover versions have emerged from Vijay Iyer and Marty Ehrlich.

How do they compare?

First, here’s the premise. “Dogon A.D.” is built on a grinding, grumpy funk riff that’s in a subtle 11 time — you don’t sense the real rhythm until you pay tight attention to the drums and realize you’re lost. That catchy riff becomes a platform for free improvising from the horns.

source: emusicEhrlich sticks close to the original formula, down to Hemphill’s lineup of sax, trumpet, cello, and drums. In fact, his whole album, Things Have Got To Change, is a Hemphill tribute, sporting three Hemphill compositions and a group of Ehrlich originals that show Hemphill’s stamp of catchy, complex funk.

Ehrlich resurrects “Dogon A.D.” with repect and gusto. He chooses a relatively relaxed arc for his own solo; rather than sandblasting (which isn’t his style anyway), he plays around with unexpected tonalities, a sideways push into new ground. Then James Zollar digs in with the trumpet, showing some polished free-jazz flash.

Iyer’s version, which had been previewable at NPR in the weeks before the Historicity album came out, has a necessarily different sound, as Iyer’s trio uses just bass and drums behind his piano. Iyer’s rolling piano solo includes his usual low-register rumblings and hard bass pumping, and lots of adventuruous, breezy work with the right hand. The bass and drums cut free from the basic riff for a good all-soloing feel, and the bass later takes over for a short, quiet, bowed solo.

But the real treat to Iyer’s “Dogon A.D.” is in the way he deals with the composed and pre-arranged parts. What was once an airy two-horn theme becomes a tense piano punchcard. And the re-emergesource: vijay-iyer.comnce of the dual horns towards the end is replaced by a quiet break, where the beat continues suspensefully, followed by some hard-chorded jazzy drama and a nicely fluttering ending. Iyer’s remolded the guts of the song like clay, a prime example of the good that can come of taking new approaches to tried-and-true material.

(Note, too, that Historicity has a theme: cover songs chosen for their “disruptive quality,” as Iyer says in the liner notes. Like Ehrlich and Berne, Iyer apparently considers this a pivotal piece worth preserving and expanding upon.)

And the original? It’s still magical. Abdul Wadud’s cello holds down that 11-based riff, later twisting it into a heavy-sawing phrase that ends on a two-note chord that he lets ring, like a struck match. It’s a nice touch. Hemphill doesn’t blaze lightspeed with his solo but produces a lot of sharp corners and sudden turns, all the while pouring out a fiery, raspy sax sound, a gritty air that Ehrlich and Iyer don’t try to replicate — probably because that’s Julius, and not them. On trumpet, Baikida Carroll lets the sparks fly but also leaves a lot of white space, so that the cello part keeps on drilling into your consciousness.

A word on drumming, too, since Philip Wilson gets a nice mention in that Berne interview. Ehrlich’s take, and Iyer’s, to a smaller extent, both open with a crisp drumbeat that spells out the 11/8 pulse. Wilson, on the original, just splashes out the stressed notes for a 4-4-3 rhythm. It’s a nice sound and leaves some mystery out there as the cello riff starts asserting itself. Then again, if the other versions started that way, they’d be just copycatting. I think the difference is warranted.

The Berne interview has inspired me to try catching up on more of Hemphill’s material. That’ll be the subject of another posting, probably not for a few weeks.

Dogon A.D. remains unavailable, although you might be interested to read one of these.source: all about jazz.com