L-R: Kyle Armbrust, Michi Wiancko (back to camera), Kivie Cahn-Lipman, Miranda Cuckson (back to camera), Vijay Iyer
Jazz (I hesitated using that adjective, but jazz is what he’s known for) pianist Vijay Iyer‘s new ECM album, Mutations (buy it from Amazon), opens and closes with a few solo piano or piano with electronics pieces. The first two, which begin the program, serve as introductions to Mr. Iyer’s sparse atmospheric playing and composing styles. Spellbound and Sacrosanct, Cowrie Shells and the Shimmering Sea, for solo piano, has moments of Debussian melodic élan, along with figures that clearly come from jazz. Vuln, Part 2 adds electronics to the proceedings—delicate, soft sounds that gently expand the palette of Iyer’s sparse piano phrases.
Mutations, the album’s centerpiece, is a ten-movement work for string quartet, piano, and electronics, whose subject, not surprisingly given the title, is change. As a whole, the piece is a compendium of compositional techniques at the nexus of jazz and 21st Century post-minimalism. Most of the pieces in Mutations explore a single mood and/or mode of expression, often hinted at in the title: “Rise,” “Canon,” et cetera.
The string quartet is at the forefront for most of the piece, with the piano and electronics offering colorful backgrounds and splashes of sound. My favorites, for what it’s worth, include “Rise” with its slowly rising notes over a pulsing rhythmic background, “Canon” and “Chain” with their counterpoint and sense of life, and “Automata,” with its urgency and surprises. “Kernal,” the closest Mutations comes to my beloved Modernism, is a bit of a disappointment—it seems a little tentative and maybe a bit undercooked.
But the next-to-last Mutation, “Descent,” just knocks me out the more I listen to it. It is grim and relentless, as if Shostakovich had gotten hold of a sequencer. I don’t want to say much more about it, except to say that it is one of the most expressive new pieces I’ve heard in a long time. Speaking of “Time,” the final Mutation is a letdown after what has just come to pass. It is more like the solo piano pieces than the rest of Mutations, and while I can understand that Iyer may have felt a need to decompress after “Descent,” I wish he hadn’t. The album closes with the piano and electronic When We’re Gone, whose highlight for me is a hint at a big romantic climax that never comes, as it were, and the piece suddenly and quietly ends.
The playing on this disc, by Iyer and a pickup string quartet consisting of Miranda Cuckson and Michi Wiancko on violins, Kyle Armbrust on viola, and Kivie Cahn-Lipman on cello, is top-notch—expressive and colorful. Highly recommended.
Watch a short video about the making of Mutations: