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It would be reasonable to expect that Vijay Iyer — who performed a rare solo piano set at the Annenberg Center’s intimate Harold Prince Theater this week — plays super-intellectual music. Although he has been playing musical instruments most of his life (he started taking classical violin lessons at age three), most of his training led him toward the world of science.
Iyer has a degree in math and physics from Yale and had begun to pursue his doctorate in physics at Berkeley when a bunch of rowdy jazz musicians pulled him over to the dark side. He has, however, kept one foot in academia as a member of Harvard’s music faculty. He also won a Macarthur Fellowship in 2013: you know, the "genius grant."
His piano playing is certainly smart, but more significantly, it is by turns sensuous, mysterious, tender, and intense. Iyer won great acclaim for the recordings of his trio, which recently expanded to a sextet. But it is illuminating to hear his voice on one instrument, displaying his singular artistry without the safety net of other musicians.
Here in Philadelphia, he crossed boundaries at will — indeed, seemed to melt them away. There were times when he didn't even sound as though he was playing jazz. The vast piece that closed the first half of his recital broke away from traditional rhythmic patterns for long stretches, featuring intertwining chains of arpeggios and odd, rumbling bass lines.
He then deftly steered the music back to somewhat familiar territory. An extended coda exuded the kind of post-Bill Evans smokiness and harmonic playfulness that established Iyer’s reputation.
Iyer’s unusually broad range of musical experience filters through on several levels. Jazz allusions abound, of course. His opening work was an homage to Cole Porter, with melodic snippets of “Night and Day” sneaking through the modernistic fabric.
His encore was a reworking of the chord progressions from John Coltrane’s masterpiece album Giant Steps. Elsewhere, classical ghosts made appearances, including those of Debussy and Bartók. And there were Asian influences, especially in the use of whole-tone scales: a nod, perhaps, to Iyer’s Tamil heritage.
For all the emotive power and big tone of Iyer’s playing, he is not a jazz-piano virtuoso in the elegant old-school approach of Art Tatum or Oscar Peterson. Rather, he plays in a musclebound manner, with rigid shoulders and stiff forearms that lend his style a powerful, boldly shaped architecture.
Oddly, there was a voice microphone set up next to the piano stool, but Iyer only used it once, to announce that he was taking a break. This was disappointing since one might assume such a polymath would have some interesting things to say about his richly conceived work. On the other hand, it is probably just as well that he chose to let the music speak for itself.
What, When, Where
Vijay Iyer. September 29, 2018, at the Annenberg Center's Harold Prince Theater, 3680 Walnut Street, Philadelphia. (215) 898-3900 or annenbergcenter.org.
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