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Vijay Iyer, Linda May Han Oh, Tyshawn Sorey: Uneasy review – fired-up improv

John Fordham
·2 min read

For a former Yale maths graduate fascinated by the metrical labyrinths of South Indian Carnatic music, the prolific Tamil-descended American pianist and composer Vijay Iyer is pretty nonchalant about letting his bands loose with the sketchiest of plans.

Partnerships with unpredictable outcomes have driven him since the mid-1990s, whether in post-bop, free jazz, classical music, or projects with film-makers, poets and choreographers, while his composing has been influenced by legends from Thelonious Monk to Stevie Wonder. Uneasy is this trio’s ECM debut, but its intuitive intimacy goes back to its formation in 2014 at Canada’s Banff International Workshop in Jazz and Creative Music, where Iyer, Malaysia-born bassist Linda May Han Oh and American multi-instrumentalist and composer Tyshawn Sorey have since reconvened annually.

These 10 Uneasy pieces span 20 years of Iyer’s career, save for a breezily ingenious interpretation of Cole Porter’s Night and Day, and a scintillating Sorey-embellished take on pianist Geri Allen’s whimsically punchy Drummer Song. The relentlessly pumping Combat Breathing (written in 2014 for a gig with choreographer Paloma McGregor marking the NYPD-chokehold killing of Eric Garner) reflects the trio’s collective chemistry as well as Iyer’s commitment to social and political themes. Touba, a lilting early 2000s piece, thickens and swells in jolting percussion and McCoy Tyner-esque chords; the title track (from Iyer’s part in Karole Armitage’s 2011 ballet UnEasy) turns quiet, low-end murmurs into Oh’s tranquil, unhurried bass solo and then fiery exchanges with the drums. The hip, distantly boppish Configurations develops some of the most exciting collective improv on a set rammed with it. Though the formidable Sorey sits at the drum stool, they all move to a group pulse mysteriously sensed in every passing moment.

Also out this month

Blue Note’s Tone Poet vinyl reissue series continues with a genially swaggering classic by an saxophone giant who has influenced tenorists from Rollins and Coltrane to UK star Nubya Garcia: Dexter Gordon’s 1964 One Flight Up, with trumpeter Donald Byrd. On All Knavery and Collusion (Cadillac), Evan Parker, the British all-improv sax original from a sonic galaxy light years away, uncorks an epic free-jazz hurricane in his quartet with like-minded iconoclasts Alexander Hawkins (piano), John Edwards (bass) and long-time percussion partner Paul Lytton. And the international supergroup of pianist Michael Wollny, saxist Emile Parisien, Bowie/Blackstar bassist Tim Lefebvre and drummer Christian Lillinger unveil the live-improvised but imaginatively post-produced XXXX (Act), a fierce fusion of abstract noise, Ornettish horn lines, electronica and avant-rock.