Apr 15, 2020 9:06 PM
A spirit of camaraderie and collaboration permeated the room when Vijay Iyer and Craig Taborn took the stage of Greenwich Village’s Le Poisson Rouge during this year’s Winter Jazz Fest.
Before a densely packed house, and in a coveted time slot during a two-night focus on artists who record for the ECM label, the two vibrant pianists bravely faced off on Steinway grands.
They embarked on a wholly improvised concert, blending thematic and atmospheric ideas, moving fluidly between dissonance and consonance. Though cooked up on the spot, a certain compositional logic readily was apparent. As a whole, the pianists generated a palpable sense of a duet with an ensemble sensibility, creating a spontaneous musical entity.
Although Iyer and Taborn have been performing as a duo intermittently for more than a dozen years, their first official album just has been released. The Transitory Poems (ECM) was recorded at the Liszt Ferenc Academy of Music in Budapest on March 12, 2018.
Though each pianist is distinctive in his own right, commonalities bind the pair, including having worked with and/or been heavily influenced by AACM artists such as Roscoe Mitchell and Muhal Richard Abrams. Both pianists also are bright, sophisticated lights of the rebolstered New York contingent of ECM’s diverse roster. In 2017, the label released Iyer’s sextet album, Far From Over, and Taborn’s quartet recording, Daylight Ghosts.
The duo debut, though, is something unique. The album’s title is taken from a 1994 interview that Chris Funkhouser conducted with Cecil Taylor (1929–2018). The album’s program includes memorial tributes to Taylor, along with other important jazz pianists who recently have passed—including Abrams (1930–2017) and Geri Allen (1957–2017).
As Iyer explained, “We decided, in retrospect, that it would be an homage, essentially to Geri and Muhal and Cecil, and the [visual] artist Jack Whitten. They all passed [away recently], and they were all on our minds and directly impacted us.”
Early on a Sunday afternoon following their triumphant festival show, the pair faced off in a very different context, speaking across a boardroom table in ECM’s New York office. During a rangy interview, they swapped ideas, theories, jokes and piano talk from various angles. Below are edited excerpts from the conversation.
Do you have any reflections on last night’s performance at Le Poisson Rouge?
Vijay Iyer: It felt like it added up nicely to something. Every concert is really its own thing. Having made the album and listened to it enough times now, it’s almost like, “I have to not do that, to not think in that way.” The focus is on process for us and on just managing the energy as the time passes, and creating a certain spectrum of energies, a certain kind of variety, and also having a trajectory. But we don’t often sit, in retrospect, and say, “Oh, we should have done this.”
I’ve learned a lot from Craig, since he’s been doing something similar in a solo context for many years, before we started together. [to Taborn] I remember a question I asked you early on: “How does one think about form in that context, when you’re starting from scratch?” I know how I do it with a trio, for example. That’s more about selecting from repertoire. All the set lists for my band are spontaneous, and you probably do something similar. That’s about, “OK, where are we right now and what needs to happen? How do we want to redirect the flow of energy?”
But in the context of something where you’re just building from scratch, it’s something else. We’ve used different strategies over the years, to force the process. But maybe that just trained us to think about it efficiently.
Craig Taborn: One of the biggest differences, even though both contexts are driven by improvisation, is that when you have pieces or those information sets, they are a sort of armature around which you can improvise. You can either really use those strongly, as nodal points, or use them to redirect a flow, but they are actual things, so whatever you’re draping over them is already formed.
But with what we’re doing, it’s almost the opposite. It’s the inverse, where you have to discover what the armature is. Sometimes, it’s very evident that we’ve arrived at a thing that is the strong statement that is buttressing everything that had come before and probably will with everything after. We’re making an aesthetic determination that we’ve arrived at something, and maybe it’s time to move to another space.
It has been interesting, especially with two people. When you do it solo, you have that awareness and then dismiss it—or not. But with the both of us, we’re aware of that together. That’s the challenge and also the art of this process. Every time we’ve done it, there has been a unified sense of what this emerging structure is. As you go on through the evening, it’s established: OK, that happened, and you can determine pacing.
I use, in the most abstract sense, the term “narrative,” almost more architecturally. It describes just how things are unfolding, the pacing and sound and register—all the kinds of elements of music go into that. But it’s really about determining what form emerges from these structural points. Toward the end of the concert, this structure has emerged and there have been strong points. These possibilities have opened themselves.
So, it really is a musical entity built “from scratch” at this point?
Iyer: Yeah, it is. It is also about, “How do we key into what each other is doing?” [laughs] Sometimes, one of us lays something down and the other encounters it and interacts with it. Maybe it can be in a soloistic way or a co-constructive way. Out of those different logics or different relational maneuvers, something starts to accumulate out of all of that.
But we also have the sense of, “OK, that’s probably enough.” Often, sooner rather than later, we’ll decide, “OK, let’s take a turn here.”
Taborn: That’s the biggest danger for all improvising of that sort. In the attempt to figure out what one is doing, once you determine, “Oh, this is what we’re doing,” you almost start to fall behind the process of improvisation. It’s really dangerous to say, “OK, this is it!” So, we’re done? [laughs] You also have to ask to invite an interrogation and a development. That’s what’s great about improvisation.
It was probably already there for both of us, but playing with Roscoe really gets you into understanding that, so you don’t bog down.
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