Iyer, Sorey, Crump Rekindle Bonds at Chicago’s Constellation

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Pianist Vijay Iyer, shown here in a publicity photo, performed with bassist Stephan Crump and drummer Tyshawn Sorey at Chicago’s Constellation on July 1.

(Photo: Lena Adasheva)

Pianist Vijay Iyer typically tours with his trio of bassist Stephan Crump and drummer Marcus Gilmore, but his July 1 stop at Chicago’s progressive music venue Constellation featured different, though equally talented, personnel.

In 2003, the quartet of Iyer, Crump, saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa and drummer Tyshawn Sorey released Blood Sutra (Pi). While Mahanthappa wasn’t at Constellation, the accompanying trio played a mesmerizing set, focusing on music from the album.

The concert was an extensive affair, comprising two nearly 40-minute blocks of music and a 15-minute jam. But the trio consistently found ways to keep the audience engaged. As they segued from piece to piece, they let the energy from the preceding tune carry over to the next, leaving little room for applause. Save for a few moments, each musician played for the duration of the concert, making for a dense group sound. Still, the atmosphere felt spacious, and the musicians allowed the music to breathe.

Even within such a structured environment, the trio impressed with its ability to play freely and experimentally. Each musician seemed deeply focused on his own ideas, yet still acutely attuned to his fellow bandmates. The effect was similar to a collaborative painting—each musician used his own palette, while also sharing some of the colors with the band.

Part of what made this particular group so hypnotizing was the ways it challenged traditional notions about the piano trio. Iyer’s piano wasn’t merely providing the melody and harmony; the bass wasn’t always walking and the drums were certainly not just keeping time. Rather, the three musicians met on a common ground, collectively improvising.

Iyer—who topped the Jazz Artist category in the 2016 DownBeat Critics Poll—often played simply and rhythmically, hanging onto ideas for a long time and creating a kind of minimalism. Crump focused as much on melody as he did on groove. Sorey was also extremely melodic, echoing phrases by Iyer and Crump. During the moments when the drummer took charge, Iyer kept time on the piano with dense, looped figures.

Beyond their outstanding musicianship, the three members had a shared mindset, exhibiting a strong sense of trust. With these attributes, they could let go of the reins a bit and go where the momentum took them.

Throughout the set, the music always felt like it was going somewhere, but the trio kept the audience guessing as to where. Sometimes the destination would be an intensely loud groove; other times, a delicate dialog.

Despite the program’s highly cerebral feel, it didn’t lack for soul or emotion. Here was a trio in which meticulous technique did not overshadow pure passion.

After reintroducing the trio before the last piece, Iyer complimented the audience saying, “I can hear you listening, you sound good.” It was true; the audience at Constellation was intently focused throughout, most likely due to the energy the musicians created on stage. We can only hope the trio will release another album together featuring this kind of vitality.