TO Jazz Review: Vijay Iyer, June 28, Glenn Gould Studio

Toronto – Going into Tuesday’s Vijay Iyer show at the Glenn Gould Studio, I knew very little about Iyer aside from what’s written on the Jazz Festival’s website. Not knowing what to expect, I was a little dismayed when I heard the opening tune; abstract, seemingly without melody, it felt like this was going to be the kind of contemporary jazz show that turn people off the music as too expressionist and inaccessible.

What I’d missed, because I was late getting to the show and too busy settling myself and such to be paying close enough attention, was that Iyer had actually segued in that opening tune from one of his own compositions into “Epistrophy” by Thelonious Monk. After that came a concert that blended Iyer’s complex, and, indeed, somewhat abstract, jazz piano with the more familiar as Iyer covered songs from Duke Ellington, John Coltrane, and even Michael Jackson.

Iyer is a genius, musically and otherwise. Yale undergrad degree in physics and math at 20. Ph.D in Technology and the Arts from Berkeley. Faculty member at multiple New York schools. Compostions and collaborations with musicians from all over the world. He’s also won multiple awards, including a Grammy in 2010 for Best Instrumental Jazz Album. Knowing that now, if his set had been completely above my head it wouldn’t have been too surprising. I mean, I like jazz, but A Love Supreme and In a Silent Way are about as free jazz/fusion as I get. I don’t even like Bitches Brew.

However, any concerns that Iyer’s set would be above my head were dispelled when he launched into “Darn that Dream,” an old Broadway tune and jazz standard. From there, Iyer rattled off Michael Jackon’s “Human Nature,” Ellington’s “Black and Tan Fantasy,” and a Coltrane song who’s name I can’t place (which is driving me nuts, by the way) in succession, adding his own impressionist flare with complicated solos, without losing the melody and rhythm of the tunes. Between songs, Iyer was soft-spoken and charming, though he seemed slightly reluctant to speak much, which is too bad, because hearing such a brilliant person speak a little about their passion is always great. At one point he said he tended to let the piano take him where it wanted to go, and indeed, when he paused before each song, head down over the keys, eyes closed, you could almost believe he and the piano were speaking, trying to decide where they would go.

In the end, Iyer played a few of his own songs after his Coltrane cover, then left without an encore, his hour and a half set ending all too quickly. Even though the small crowd of 50 or so got to see Iyer play, it felt almost as though we’d caught just a glimpse of genius. Maybe next time it’ll be more than just a glimpse.

Posted on by Brian in Concerts, Toronto Jazz Festival