Vijay Iyer’s New Trio Is a Natural Fit. Its Album Is ‘Uneasy.’
The pianist Vijay Iyer composed the title track for his new trio album “Uneasy” in 2011 for a collaboration with the dancer and choreographer Karole Armitage. It was still a few years before the 2016 presidential campaign when so many of the country’s old wounds and resentments became publicly visible, but he was already feeling some undercurrents moving.
“It was 10 years after September 11th, and after being in New York the whole time, every moment of relative peace felt precarious,” he said recently by phone from his Harlem home. “I’m not just talking about the attack itself, but about all the consequences: the setback, the backlash against color communities, the atmosphere of surveillance and fear.”
“It was the Obama years, so there was a certain exuberance about the possibility and there was also a kind of unease,” he added. “It was a time of the Affordable Care Act and drone wars, gay marriage and mass deportations.” When digital surveillance became a fact of life, as an American-born artist of South Asian descent, he was struck by the feeling “that what Americans like to call freedom is not what it appears to be,” he said.
Another decade has now passed, and the version of “Uneasy” that appears on the album on Friday seems to contain a mixture of fierce thought and rich optimism – a typical mix in Iyer’s work. He is joined by two slightly younger musicians with a considerable number of followers, Linda May Han Oh on bass and Tyshawn Sorey on drums. As improvisers they have a few things in common: the ability to play with a smooth range of motion and radiant clarity in the style of well-trained jazz musicians and at the same time to stir up a kind of twisting inner tension. Crucial to this balance is their ability to connect almost telepathically in real time.
The title track unfolds ominously over more than nine minutes and begins in a dark cloud of doubt. Iyer’s deep piano repetitions float around a slow, odd-numbered pattern. Later, the group shifts up – abruptly, but without completely losing their cohesion – to a faster, charging section with a completely different rhythm. Iyer’s right hand shoots in evasive gestures while Oh holds down the scaffolding, adding action and sizzling to Sorey.
The trio first came together in 2014 at the Banff International Jazz and Creative Music Workshop, with 49-year-old Iyer and 40-year-old Sorey serving as artistic directors. The two have been working together since 2001 when Sorey Iyer delighted at a rehearsal. During a hiatus, Sorey casually began to noodle on the piano, and Iyer soon noticed that he was playing an excerpt from Iyer’s most recent album. It wasn’t even from the tune of the song; it was part of Iyer’s improvised solo on the recording.
“He was just this 20-year-old,” said Iyer. “So I already knew, oh, this is a real genius here.” (In fact, in recent years, both Iyer and Sorey – known today for his long form compositions as well as his drumming – have received MacArthur Genesis Scholarships. Both have become professors in music at Ivy League institutions.) Sorey joined Iyer and saxophonist Steve Lehman joined the collective trio Fieldwork, and their partnership blossomed.
In 2013, Iyer took over the artistic direction of Banff – a creative enclave in Alberta, Canada where students gather for a three-week improvisation workshop every year – and he invited Sorey to teach by his side every year. Eventually, he formalized their relationship as a partnership and welcomed Sorey as his co-director.
Oh, 36, had worked with Iyer and Sorey here and there before becoming a regular instructor at Banff as well. She said she appreciated the fluid teacher-student divide that the workshop fostered. Speaking on the phone from her home in Australia, Oh remembered the poetry of how Iyer encouraged students to ponder the notes they played on their instrument in relation to the range of their own speaking voice.
Playing Iyer’s compositions, she said, can be like working out “nice little puzzles,” and she called Sorey an ideal teammate.
“It’s a lot of fun drawing and talking about that line between what’s built into this structure and what we can have a dialogue about,” she said. Sorey is “so thorough with the built-in things in the composition, but he’s going to create those sparks that you really don’t expect,” she continued. “It’s just a constant energetic dialogue.”
Oh also has a knack for creating stable foundations without sinking into a pattern. She played together and said, “We can be reactive and proactive at the same time.”
Iyer was quick to stress the importance of Sorey’s supportive style, calling it remarkable for an artist who has so much to say on his own terms. He described how he started nodding towards one song while playing another, maybe just moving a phrase, and then felt Sorey immediately dive into it, awaiting his next move as if trying to catch him. “Because he hears everything, that means we can just do anything,” said Iyer.
In an interview, Sorey said he was always “most comfortable” in situations where there were only three players, describing this particular trio as “basically an organism”.
“That feeling of intimacy leads to a certain kind of trust where nothing can be done wrong,” he said.
The group entered the studio in 2019, but Iyer didn’t select the tracks they’d recorded until the following year when the name “Uneasy” felt even more painful. “Under the conditions of hell it was 2020: tragedy and loss and the political battle of the century,” he said. “Then on the other hand, an incredible uprising, especially by young people who fight for black justice and for all. That imagines a future. “
Some of the song titles address this issue: “Children of Flint” refers to the Michigan water crisis; “Combat Breathing” was composed in 2014 in solidarity with activists from Black Lives Matter and presented as part of a “Die-In” at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. But so are the sounds themselves – irritable and bursting, while showing an inspiring level of oneness and compassion.
When it came time to select the cover art for the album, Iyer turned down nearly a dozen suggestions from Manfred Eicher, director of ECM Records, before opting for a black and white double exposure by Korean photographer Woong Chul An. It shows the Statue of Liberty, blurry and gray, seemingly between the clouds in the sky and another puff of clouds hanging directly over the sea.
“When I saw it, I didn’t know how to feel about it,” Iyer said. “What does it mean to me to have that on my album cover? What does that mean anyway? “
Ultimately, he was drawn to the hazy ambivalence that the image conveys. “This is a distant image of the Statue of Liberty, not as that proud symbol looming but as almost what that rejected figure looks like,” he said, pointing out that France had offered the statue to the United States in celebration of the end of slavery here.
“Since this symbol tends to represent freedom in America, it is also associated with abolition,” he said. “The fact that these concepts are interrelated is important, in my opinion, to highlight them. They seemed to be sitting in an uncomfortable relationship with one another, freedom and its opposite. “