Vijay Iyer Blindfold Test at 2018 North Sea Jazz Festival


Vijay Iyer (left) discusses a track with journalist Dan Ouellette during a DownBeat Blindfold Test at the North Sea Jazz Festival in Rotterdam, The Netherlands.

(Photo: North Sea Jazz Festival)

A MacArthur Fellow, Harvard University faculty member and winner of the Jazz Artist category in the 2018 DownBeat Critics Poll, pianist Vijay Iyer is one of the most fascinating figures in jazz. Amid a European tour with his splendid sextet, he sat down for a live Blindfold Test on July 15 at the North Sea Jazz Festival. (DownBeat also conducted Blindfold Tests at North Sea with Kurt Elling and Jazzmeia Horn.)

Cecil Taylor

“Pots” (Mixed: The Cecil Taylor Unit/Roswell Rudd Sextet, Impulse/GRP, 1998, recd 1961) Taylor, piano; Jimmy Lyons, alto saxophone; Archie Shepp, tenor saxophone; Henry Grimes, bass; Sunny Murray, drums.

I’m going to take a stab at this and say that it’s “Pots” from Cecil Taylor’s Into The Hot album that also has the songs “Bulbs” and “Mixed.” We lost Cecil Taylor earlier this year. He was one of my great influences. I am a huge admirer and fan of Cecil, who I got to meet and get to know a little bit. I learned so much just from watching his actions at the piano. I love his solo music, but I also love this phase of his ensemble music in the ’60s. Even though I hate Facebook, because it’s a global villain that should be destroyed, I posted after he passed away that we haven’t caught up to Cecil Taylor’s music, and we have not studied him enough.

People who have coarse-brained ideas of what he did [will] say that he just played free-jazz. But his music was about systems—ordered and very detailed. This piece is a clear example, where you hear the orchestrated polyrhyming with the drum part, either written or scheduled. The way Cecil plays in the ensemble is very well-ordered. It’s not a free-for-all, but it’s uncannily synchronized. I don’t think the world understands this well enough. I look forward to the coming decades of research and scholarship in his recorded music. People appreciate the far-out stuff, but he was actually a great communicator. He wasn’t just free-jazz. He was one of the greatest artists of the 20th century.

Erroll Garner

“You Do Something To Me” (Closeup In Swing & A New Kind Of Love, Telarc, 1997, recd 1961) Garner, piano, Eddie Calhoun, bass; Kenny Martin, drums.

This is 9-and-a-half stars. At first, I thought maybe it was Oscar Peterson, but then I thought it was too raw for him. I started thinking in the direction of Erroll Garner or Earl Hines. So, I’m going to say Erroll because of how raw he was, so emotive, and the groove is so deep—it’s in both hands, where he creates a rich dialogue in working on the rhythm. Erroll Garner was a natural, which is so evident in his intuition of how to be so expressive with Cole Porter’s “You Do Something To Me.” He played what’s not in the original, lifting it off the page and giving it his own inflection. I was tapping my toes. I like the way he sits back in the beat and then gives these upbeat jolts that lift you off your chair. It’s raw like Cecil and Monk. Technique is nothing but a means to an end, but sometimes you want to express something that has more rough edges. Even when Erroll played a sweet song like “Misty,” he attached a blues sensibility. They don’t teach you that in conservatory or jazz school. In Erroll’s music you hear a life.

Tigran Hamasyan

“Shogher Jan (Dear Shogher)” (Red Hail, Plus Loins Music, 2009) Hamasyan, piano, keyboards; Ben Wendel, reeds; Sam Minale, bass; Nate Wood, drums; Areni Aghabian, vocals.

[immediately] That’s Tigran Hamasyan. I’ve known him for quite a long time, and he took lessons from me around the time after he won the Monk Competition, when he was developing his concept of playing Armenian music from his background. It was being called a hybrid at the time, but I told him not to make a hybrid while still being faithful to those melodies. Sometimes people take folk melodies and they harmonize them, which sucks the life out of it. I said, “Stay with the melody and do something more interesting around it.” That’s when different relationships emerge. It’s wonderful to hear Tigran take that forward and make a very genuine, original statement for today. Plus, he can get around the piano really well. Like Cecil and Erroll, he’s a virtuoso. He handles it well. He can play jaw-dropping lines, but he’s also simpatico with his colleagues, especially his drummer and his vocalist and my friend Areni Aghabian, who is a great singer with an otherworldly pitch of accuracy and clarity. This is a wonderful point of arrival for Tigran.

Fred Hersch Trio

“Skipping” (Live In Paris, Palmetto, 2018) Hersch, piano; John Hébert, bass; Eric McPherson, drums.

I don’t know who this is, and I have zero guesses. I like the composition, the opening scene, the figures, the written stuff. That’s the role of a pianist in a trio. It’s the contrapuntal and harmonic [elements] that make it intriguing about what was going to happen next. But then in the solo section, it seemed like the solos were over changes without getting a handle on the tune or making it have its own shape. The eighth notes on the left and the soloing on the right sounds like a lot of other pianists. I would have liked to hear more handling of the full range of the piano and its sound. In particular, I would like to hear more detailed interaction with the drums because that, to me, is the heart of the music. That’s what the core of the interaction should be. Here I felt the drums were more ornamental. [after] Oh, it was Fred? Then I’m definitely not qualified to say anything more. He’s a master pianist. I like the composition, and I will check it out again.

Misha Mengelberg

“Four In One” (Four In One, Songlines, 2001) Mengelberg, piano; Dave Douglas, trumpet; Brad Jones, bass; Han Bennink, drums, percussion.

It’s Monks “Four In One,” and it sounded like Andrew Cyrille on drums. That’s what the cymbals sound like. Andrew playing with some European guys. I don’t know who the pianist is, but it’s someone who has a high sound on the instrument and who has a lot of flights of fancy. Often people try to stretch out on a Monk tune by breaking up the time and harmony. He’s dealing with a groove and a rhythmic profile and the colors of his harmonies. I can understand why he had the impulse to stretch out so much on a Monk tune. I did like this, but it was as if the rhythm section had to hold it down. The pianist was phasing in and out of the Monk feel. [after] The drummer is Han Bennink? So it must be Misha Mengelberg. This is respect for the late master. It was as if he were thinking, OK, we’re not getting too serious, but also playing important music. I was once asked to perform a duo with Mr. Mengelberg, but I was told that he might play for five minutes and then get up and leave. No one knew what to expect. I was ready for anything. We ended up doing a 45-minute duet, so I guess that means that he didn’t hate me. It was wonderful, and I have that recording in the vaults.

Geri Allen

“Portraits And Dreams” (Timeless Portraits And Dreams, Telarc, 2006) Allen, piano; Ron Carter, bass; Jimmy Cobb, drums.

I wish this had been longer. I don’t know who it is. It’s a nice tune, but not a lot of room for stretching out. Is this Geri? And is this from Timeless Portraits And Dreams? I have this album, and I was just listening to it four months ago. I wish she had played more to see how it would develop. It’s like a brief episode. Knowing her and knowing her music and being obsessed with her music for the last 30 years, it makes me want to hear more. But this makes sense with her harmonic shifts. During this time, you could hear she wasn’t finished. In the period before the end of her life, Geri played with a dignified sadness that was held aloft by a richness of tone and a poignancy in the pulse. I could hear her strength. A master gone too soon.

Sylvie Courvoisier

Eclats For Ornette(DAgala, Intakt, 2018) Courvoisier, piano; Drew Gress, bass; Kenny Wollesen, drums.

I don’t know who this is. I really like the head, and I like the piano playing the melody and the spiral. I liked the rhythm section. I liked the whole band. Is this a woman or man? I like her music. It’s very openminded and committed to the flow. This is a short take, which is what happens in studio recordings, but I would have liked to hear her develop things further. [after] Oh, it’s Sylvie? I know her, but I haven’t checked her out for years. In the early 2000s, I heard her play at Tonic and the old Knitting Factory with [violinist] Mark Feldman. On this tune, she’s playing with a slightly disheveled quality that I’m really drawn to. She’s not worried about being perfect, but is more into getting into something. I find that she’s a very spirited improviser who’s pushing herself. I like her and I really enjoyed this. DB

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