Six Pianos, Part Two

Good jazz musicians make jazz that sounds good in the moment, great jazz musicians do that and also place that music within the historical firmament of the music, not only showing you how their playing fits into the tradition but that the tradition is never dead, never past, never irrelevant. All the ideas, styles and notes that have come before are available for each and every player to partake, transform and offer to the next generation. Three great contemporary jazz musicians, Vijay Iyer, Brad Mehldau and Jason Moran, are also the three leading jazz pianists of this generation, moving the jazz tradition forward and expanding the possibilities for the music, and each have new recordings out this year that display their skills in the context of a century of the music’s history and future.

Iyer has a substantial and important body of work accumulated over a little more than a decade, and his collaboration with Mike Ladd, In What Language? , continues to grow in stature while so much other post-9/11 political art vanishes from experience and memory. His trio recording, Historicity , was one of the top jazz CDs of 2009, and this year he has something new, Solo , which is both a title and a description of the set. Except for the occasional individual track on a group recording, Iyer has not release any solo recordings until this one. It’s no surprise that the playing is as fine as always, but what is unexpected and ear-opening are what, at least on disc, are newly heard elements of his style and ideas, and the revelation of hearing where Iyer himself sees his place in the time-stream of jazz – what branches of that flow have come together to produce his particular musicianship.

Iyer is a percussive, propulsive player, favoring hard-grooving ostinatos, fairly-tightly voiced chords and interested as much in finding expressive places to put notes in time as in building melodic and harmonic structures in improvisation. A good way to hear this is in how he plays the music of others, the way he breaks down the melody of Bernstein’s “Somewhere” (on Historicity) and builds it back up into a plangent, ringing exploration that comes out of the legacy of the Coltrane quartet with McCoy Tyner, or his powerful take on “Hey Joe,” “Because of Guns” on Blood Sutra , that distills the tune down to an essence and builds that into a grand, symphonic soundscape. So the opening track on Solo, Michael Jackson’s hit “Human Nature,” has the sublime thrill of hearing a familiar artist in a new way. It’s a delicate, lyrical polyphonic meditation on the tune, one that emphasizes how lovely and moving the melody is by resetting the harmonies and maintaining a pulsing flow of music in the middle range and bass. Along with being a wonderful cut, it’s also a kind of artistic statement, Iyer telling us about his taste, his technical ability (in a non-showy way, this is extremely accomplished pianism), and his aesthetic ideas about music, fame, and what they mean to him and jazz. His playing when he returns to the chorus to take the tune out is emotionally unobtrusive but still intense, we can hear Jackson’s voice singing in Iyer’s head, and the pianists own complex thoughts about the greatness and tragedy of the singer.

As he is for any self-respecting modern jazz musician, Thelonious Monk is an important part of Iyer’s approach to the piano (in the liner notes, he states that he owes a great musical debt to Monk, Andrew Hill, Ellington, Muhal Richard Abrams, Randy Weston, Cecil Taylor and Sun Ra). The pianist wears these influences lightly. There are certain discrete elements of his playing and composing that can be heard in the general styles of Monk and Ellington (who themselves come together in Taylor), and Hill has clearly been a major influence on his tunes and improvisation. It’s not that Iyer sounds like Hill, or any other pianist, that’s not where true influence lies, it’s that he learned a set of musical values from his forbears, and in the case of Hill it’s the importance of balancing structure and freedom in an idiomatic way. These values, and his particular way of thinking and playing, really come out on his version of Monk’s “Epistrophy.” Monk played it, and it’s still most often heard, as an easy swinging, witty exercise in putting two beats against three beats and then coordinating them at the chorus. Iyer’s approach is fresh; rather than accepting the alluring surrender to Monk’s forceful and charming logic, he uses fragments of the tune to build what amounts to a recomposed version, one that is based on the same concept of rhythmic tension but goes in a different structural direction. He strips down the harmony and, using repeated notes and patterns, builds a minor key, dissonant and intense response, with appreciable internal elements of the original and an involved, Romantic sense of exploration. It’s a bravura track.

Ellington is represented by “Black and Tan Fantasy” and “Fleurette Africaine,” and these are the most revealing moments on the recording, the music that gets us deepest inside Iyer’s head and into parts of his musical imagination that have been sub rosa up to this point. In the former tune, he goes through what would seem the standard gestures, a quietly galumphing march to begin, rapturous tremolos in the chorus, the question of whether this is clichéd obviated by his personal stamp of re-harmonizing parts of the tune. Under the pianist’s hands, the little African flower is richly, melancholically beautiful, moving from Ellington’s traditional set of chords to a powerfully effective, contemporary harmony, then back again. These tracks offer an open-ended path into his musical possibilities, his place in the stream of time and of American music. Ellington is hugely important but surprisingly not pervasively influential. Part of it is his place in the creation of American music; his compositions come out of his own personal and musical experiences, and as a body of work they help create a specifically American musical culture. Like Ives, Ellington comes at the beginning, and his own origins, like Ives’ in Brahms, become lost and irrelevant once that special sound and conception matures. Musician who have tried to follow in Duke’s compositional footsteps just sound like cheap imitations (viz. Wynton Marsalis).

The piano is something different, though. Ellington was never a great pianist but he was an important and distinctive one, with a percussive style, an ear for color and an unselfconscious imagination that connected what were, even in the 1930s, clichés of ragtime, blues, stomp and stride with a sophisticated sense of polyphony and harmony. Monk comes straight out of Ellington, and so does Cecil Taylor, whose own style can be understood as a radical compression in time and a radical expansion across the keyboard of the predecessor’s style. When Iyer plays these Ellington tunes he sounds like a worthy adherent to and successor of this school, revealing the roots of his own ultra-contemporary playing. It’s exciting and enticing to hear musical history recreated and created both vertically and horizontally, and the inherent humor in the music brings out the good-natured side of the younger player, one that is frequently overpowered by the driving, even aggressive intensity of his other recordings.

To all this music Iyer adds a sincere, quizzical version of “Darn That Dream,” a propulsive version of Steve Coleman’s “Dreams,” and original material. The CD closes with a short, sharp homage to Ra, “One for Blount,” and the middle is occupied by a suite of tracks, music in which he comments on his own music-making; “Prelude: Heartpiece,” “Autoscopy,” “Patterns” and “Desiring.” This is an apparently heavily improvised series of pieces that offer a deep, rich connection to the other music on the disc. While the rest of the music allows Iyer to show us where he’s come from, this central, and captivating, core, shows us what a mature artist does with the material that feeds his art and his imagination. Out of wide open harmonies and fragments Iyer builds a grand edifice, impressive, contemplative, assured. The self-consciousness of the artist, aware of his roots and especially critically observing his own work and ultimately dismissing even himself as an obstacle to direct expression, is at the fore. With this central, original material, Iyer transforms Solo into something much more than a resume of a pianist’s development; it’s a disc that shows in clear and powerful ways how a musician creates his art, what his goals are and how he achieves them.

Jason Moran has the whole world in his hands. His playing is as close as possible to hearing the sound of America; rural, urban, raw, sophisticated, tragic, joyous. A 2010 MacArthur Fellow, Moran is the epitome of jazz music, an elusive, mongrel form that is both populist and elite, that was created in this country from scratch like Athena bursting from the head of Zeus, that is both traditional and experimental. Jazz has a lot of internal tensions that have rarely been reconciled by even the best musicians. It began as popular dance music with idiomatic improvisation, and quickly moved into the realm of Modernism, while still carrying a powerful, clearly defined beat. By circumstance, jazz musicians have generally been at the economic fringe of society for the past seventy years, but they continue to listen to the pop music of the day, incorporate it into their art and turn it back, transformed, onto the public. It’s a music with strong origins and that has developed hand in hand with recording technology and the mass distribution of media – it’s all on record. With the physical preservation of its history, its self-awareness about its roots and its frequent controversies over just what constitutes “jazz,” the music can be held back by the weight of that legacy, by the inertia of thought that finds the path of least resistance in fitting one’s own playing to that legacy, finding the niche in the museum display. But it’s also a fundamentally improvised music and one that has been, unlike the South Indian traditions for example, freed from its social obligations. Improvisation by its nature demands newness, and so a subset of jazz musicians strive to carry the weight of history, via improvisation, into the future, to add their own substance to the top of the chain.

That’s hard to do. It’s aesthetically easy and possibly socially and economically rewarding to do what Marsalis has done, insist that history stopped at a certain arbitrary point and then to insist that the only proper course of action is to perpetually remake that moment, making jazz into some strange fetish and turning musicianship into a psychologically unhealthy form of voguing. The best musicians, like Moran, make advancing the music sound easy. They carry that entirety of history with them yet wear it so lightly. Instead of a burden to bear, it becomes a platform on which they support their own work. They stand on the shoulders of giants and so see farther.

And Moran sees very far indeed. His new Blue Note CD, Ten , with his trio, The Bandwagon, of Tarus Mateen on bass and Nasheet Waits on drums, is both as marvelous as one would come to expect and still surprising. By the whole world, I mean Moran has history in his hands, his touch, his attack, his phrasing, his chord voicings. Every moment of his sound is like hearing the history of jazz piano playing from its very beginnings to where it is right now. Beyond defining his own place in jazz history, he excavates and transforms that history.

His musical flexibility is not only extreme but part of his identity. The trio is one of the best in jazz, as instantly responsive to and focussed on each other as Cecil Taylor’s Feel Trio with William Parker and Tony Oxley. Moran’s fundamental style is stride, blues, funk, soul and modern jazz all in one, his own compositions and playing are immediately appealing in the populist sense and leave lingering questions and interest like the best art. “RFK in the Land of Apartheid” combines a funky, ominous bass line with a melody that starts off fragmented, conversational, even slightly faltering, before Moran brings it together with a simple, strong harmony. His playing bursts open into bright, long chords, indebted to ragtime yet new in this context, that sound like the possibility of history, the moments that might work in music and society. “Gangsterism Over 10 Years” explores a tune that the pianists has been working at since his debut Soundtrack to Human Motion, a hip, exuberant riff that he’s parsed through different harmonies and rhythms, and on Ten it’s a brilliant, rocking trio piece, with group playing and improvising that seems to threaten to knock Moran off his chair, even as we’re picking ourselves up off the floor. He’s a reliably fine composer of well-crafted pieces, not just tunes but examples of what it means to write excellent song-form, and art-song-form, music.

It’s when he’s playing the music of others, though, that I think we learn the most about him and his art. As much as he’s an improvising jazz musician playing his own material, he’s a pianist, dedicated to playing that literature. Previous CDs have him playing fine, un-showy Schumann and Brahms, not to prove a point other than, as a pianist, this is great music to play. On the new recording he plays music from Jaki Byard, an important predecessor and another player who wanted us to hear the history of jazz piano when he set his hands to the keys. He also plays Monk’s “Crepuscule With Nellie,” a difficult tune to pull off in a distinctive way because there is very little to it but a melody and a riff in response. Moran’s take is one of the most original reactions to Monk I’ve heard. It starts with a deceptively straight reading of the tune, one that even indulges a little bit of imitative homage to Monk’s own way with the piano, Moran starts taking the tune into itself, recursively. He sbegins not at the beginning, but somewhere about the third bar, and repeats that, then continues, but never quite gets to the end, instead circling back to that third bar, before again trying to go on. Perhaps this seems like Beckett, and why not? On a small scale level, the way Moran disassembles and reassembles the tune is the way Monk composed, with a key piece of internal musical logic, and a phrase that combines melodic and rhythmic power around which the rest of the tune is built. Moran is doing the same thing, it’s just that no one else has ever done it. And Beckett is the perfect companion for Monk, using stark, recursive fragments to give the illusion of development through time, even though he keeps circling back to the beginning, just like jazz song form. Musically, it’s a pleasure for mind, body and soul, especially when Moran breaks into bits of blues and stride piano, and it’s absolutely brilliant in conception.

He has as subtly different view of pop music from other jazz musicians – he’s still playing standards, but he doesn’t really make use of contemporary pop material. His playing itself seems to incorporate pop music elements, not as directly as that of peers like Robert Glasper, but in phrases and gestures that show he’s aware of what’s happening in the broad mainstream. “RFK” has the stabbing-rhythm-over-a-beat quality familiar from Hip-Hop, except that it’s also familiar from Be-Bop, and Moran plays neither directly. The broad sweep that begins the opening “Blue Blocks”, the deliberate descent down in tempo and pitch is his way of announcing his own appearance. His soloing, and the trio’s response, run organically through flavors of African-American music, with gospel, blues, funk, jazz and barrelhouse shading one into each other as sort of a mini-history of popular culture and of Moran’s own synthesis of the music that came before him. He’s not name-dropping styles, he’s using them as the building blocks of his own. That pleasure in history is something especially exciting and satisfying, his acknowledgement of the performing tradition, the worthy idea that having fun is just as serious and important as having things to say. This is also how he treats the standard songbook material, in this case Bernstein’s wonderful “Big Stuff,” which starts simply but slyly, pianist perfectly capturing the character of the song, Waits shuffling out a cabaret beat on the drums. As the solo builds, it starts to swing briefly, before turning into a hyper-appreciation/parody of Art Tatum. The tempo hits uncharted territory, the music flirts with freedom, Moran articulates every note, before bringing it all back home. It’s like a roller-coaster ride, with ice cream at the end.

All this history is useless without understanding, without a way to make it relevant to the present and future. On top of what is simply fantastic jazz playing and musicianship, it’s the use of history that makes Moran so special. When I gave the CD my first listen, the fifth track stopped me short and had me searching my own memory for where I had heard this music before. Moran was covering something, something both odd and familiar, and it took me several moments to realize that he was playing Conlon Nancarrow’s Player Piano Study, No. 6. He plays it twice, the first time with a loping swing, the second, after a haunting original solo, “Pas De Deux – Lines Ballet,” as an impressionistic ballad. Nancarrow’s work is some of the greatest music of the twentieth century, and his experimental means, punching piano rolls in order to produce music technically impossible for a person to play, disguised his straightforward goals, producing fugues with the flavor of the jazz and boogie-woogie he himself played. Conceptually, music like that has been screaming for a jazz pianist to approach, but Moran has done it, it sounds natural and great and perhaps will open the door to more pianists incorporating the great piano music of the twentieth century into their art – Ligeti Etudes anyone? That’s the aesthetic element of history, the social one is the concluding track, buried inside a fragment. Moran closes with “Nobody,” a hit for the minstrel performer Burt Williams in 1905. The musical connection to jazz is not direct, but Williams and his fellow minstrel performers, as uncomfortable as it may be to consider today, were essential figures in the triumph of African-American culture as American culture. It took blackface to introduce white audiences to the music and style of African-American culture, starting a process so complete that even Karl Rove ends up thinking he could rap. Consider the point, forgive the image, and go pick up a copy of Ten, one of the best CDs of the year. [Listen to it here, listen to a complete set from an appearance by The Bandwagon at The Village Vanguard here, or download that here.]

Brad Mehldau is as indebted to Schumann and Brahms as Jason Moran, but what he has done with those composer’s ideas, and his practice of their music, is very different. Moran plays those composers fairly straight, Mehldau has tried to write music that, based in 19th century ideas about polyphony and harmony, adapts classical music to the jazz idiom. The first results was his Elegiac Cycles CD for solo piano, a recording that had some powerful moments but didn’t have the structure to hold together as a composition in the way Mehldau sought.

His newest attempt is his new CD, Highway Rider, recently heard in concert at Zankel Hall, at Carnegie Hall, where the pianist is occupying the Richard and Barbara Debs Composer’s Chair for this season. It’s an odd recording, a listening experience that alternates between the enthralling and the infuriating. It’s a record that falls inside of a history it seems to be completely ignorant of, and it’s because as a composer Mehldau has written his very best music and his very worst, and put them together.

The set is two CDs about a metaphorical journey, one that may or not be heard, and that may or may not be relevant. The fifteen tracks contain the most marvelous tunes Mehldau has ever produce, pithy, strong, singable melodies that both sound like modern Schumann miniatures and fit so well into the harmonies and rhythms that if all he and his group – Larry Grenadier on bass, Jeff Ballard and Matt Chamberlain on drums and guest Joshua Redman playing saxes – did was play the songs a few times each and skipped solos, Highway Rider would be a wonderful CD. There are solos, of course, Mehldau as always exceptional, working at parts of the music he finds hold interesting questions until he shows us his appealing answers, Redman competent but sounding strangely anonymous. There is also an orchestra. And therein lies the rub. The music for the orchestra is just not good, and the way they are used is mostly uninteresting.

In his program notes for the concert, his remarks from the stage, and the musical result, Mehldau is baring a bizarre ignorance and an incompetence that fits the definition – he seems unaware that the claims he makes for the music aren’t supported by the actual results (and he betrays a strange insecurity about jazz vis-a-vis the Western classical tradition that is anachronistic). He mentions Brahms, and specifically the Strauss Metamorphosen for strings, which has clearly impressed him with it’s number of independent parts without him realizing that Strauss was writing polyphony, that those parts are supposed to work together into a coherent whole. Most of the music is augmented orchestrations of the tunes the jazz group is playing, the strings, winds and brass added to the piano chords, a slightly extended bassoon line to finish off “Don’t Be Sad,” a longer orchestral passage to open the second disc, and a rpurely orchestral passage that presages the finale, “Always Departing.” Call it Mehldau with strings and say okay, except that if it was just with strings, the orchestrations are poor, the music mostly in the same narrow set of octaves, the sound very brown with the color and quality of the instruments underutilized. The main problem, though, is that Mehldau is adamant about seeing this as a large-scale challenge to jazz orthodoxy when it is mediocre studio orchestra jazz . Others have done this in the same way, just far, far better.

In the 1950s Stan Kenton was making statements about the importance of the composed solo and the integrated line, and then doing things about it with his augmented big band. He was controversial at the time, and I venture in this day no one could imagine what that controversy was. Kenton also reached farther from jazz orthodoxy by orders of magnitude and failed and succeeded more spectacularly than the bland middle-brow of Highway Rider. Mehldau claims that he choose Redman as the right soloist to “disrupt the prevailing order,” but on record and in concert the saxophonist has done nothing of the sort. He plays resolutely inside the music, with constant deference to the harmonies in the orchestra. His one moment of disruption, a spectacular modulation out of the key and then back in on a perfect cadence to end his solo in concert on “The Falcon Will Fly Again,” was in the context of playing in the group, with the orchestra sitting out. This sort of thing has been done decades ago, with greater ambition, fewer assertions and tremendous success, on Focus , a brilliant collaboration between composer Eddie Sauter and Stan Getz, where Sauter wrote music for an orchestra to play with Getz improvising on top. It’s imaginative, free, smart and expressive. Highway Rider, instead, has a long, lugubrious passage for strings anchored by Grenadiers dissonant bass. The music is about on the level of a freshman composition student exercise. Dissonant counterpoint is a great technique to use, but if the music maintains the same dissonant interval throughout it becomes irritating and dull, and one begins to wonder if the composer has any idea if he knows what he’s doing.

The shame of this bad, bland, dull orchestral writing is that there seems no reason for it. It doesn’t matter what the program notes say, Mehldau’s music never once gives off the feeling that it has a point, that it should have been written. It adds nothing. And again, the jazz group stuff is fabulous in every way, the kind of music every young musician who hears this record will be transcribing so they can wrap their chops around this material, which is fluid, logical and quite emotionally moving. In concert, the group playing was just terrific, Mehldau sublime, especially his great solo on “Capriccio,” Redman inspired and funk throughout, Ballard stealing the show with his drumming on “Into The City,” driving the group and soloing, simultaneously, with such frenetic verve, intention, and an endless stream of ideas that it had to be seen to be believed. Unfortunately, the orchestra, which had been laying out and admiring the music they were hearing, was soon to reenter. As much as there are many moments of pleasure, Highway Rider has specific goals which it fails to meet, specific arguments it fails to fulfill. As an admirer of Mehldau’s body of work, it’s deeply frustrating. Inside the fuzzy thinking and foggy sound, there’s an astonishing jazz record waiting to be born.


I'm a composer and musician, and I write about music—I do that here, for the New York Classical Review, at the Brooklyn Rail (I edit the music section there) and any place else that will have me, like New Music Box and Music & Literature. I also wrote the Miles Davis' Bitches Brew book in the 33 1/3 series.