There has always been an air of adventure about his music, but since Vijay Iyer has started releasing records on ECM, the acclaimed pianist has really been exploring. Iyer’s ECM debut came in the form of the hard left turn that was Mutations in 2014 – the only Iyer album which features him composing for a string quartet. In his 2015 ECM release he reconnected his long-running trio with Stephan Crump (bass) and Marcus Gilmore (drums) to create an extremely rhythmically interesting album that may the group’s best work yet in Break Stuff. Last year, he followed Break Stuff with a fantastic album that was built for the pristine, ethereal aesthetic of ECM production, the airy and experimental avant-garde collaboration with trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith, A Cosmic Rhythm with Each Stroke. A cursory listen to any of these releases side by side will reveal that, aside from the presence of Iyer himself, the only thing that they really have in common is that they are all radically different from each other. On Iyer’s latest ECM release, he continues the trend of difference, trading the sparse duo format for a powerful sextet that includes Crump (bass), Tyshawn Sorey (drums), Graham Haynes (cornet, flugelhorn, electronics), Mark Shim (tenor saxophone) and Steve Lehman (alto saxophone). After a few listens to Far From Over, it is clear that the Vijay Iyer Sextet has released a fascinating record that has the potential to be remembered as one of the pianist’s grandest achievements.
The Iyer Sextet begins the album with “Poles”, a track that is a more than adequate sample of the energetic project that is to come. Iyer opens the track alone, lightly playing a rising brooding sequence of notes with his left hand and rising and descending with his right before the track explodes into percussively used horns that state the main theme at the beginning of the first minute. The piano and horns quickly trade places, with Iyer accompanying the horns by playing the previously stated theme as they explore even further, eventually giving way to a remarkably forceful and angular Lehman solo. After Lehman finishes, the band switches the atmosphere of the song completely, with the relatively calm and reserved demeanor of Haynes’ playing, accompanied by Iyer, who switches to Fender Rhodes, giving the latter portion of the song an extremely spacious atmosphere.
Iyer and his band space out even further on tracks like “End of the Tunnel” and “Wake”, the two most subtle tracks of Far From Over. Haynes’ haunting, electronically warped playing on “End of the Tunnel”, immediately brings to mind Miles Davis’ understated trumpet playing in his electric experiments in the late sixties and early seventies. Haynes again plays a Miles-like role on the ghostly “Wake”, where his horn echoes in and out of the tune as Iyer quietly repeats a near-hypnotizing phrase of notes.
Iyer, as a self-professed student of Andrew Hill and Thelonious Monk, is not typically associated with electric-era Miles Davis-like soundscapes, which is one of the best aspects of Far From Over – Iyer showing the range of his artistry. Although his style has been characterized in the past as “heady” or “intellectual”, “Nope” is firm proof that those terms do not fully define him. On “Nope”, which features some great collective improvisation by both sax players, Iyer shows that although he is perfectly capable of being cerebral, he is also able to write tunes with a great groove to them. That said, moderately paced, almost funk-like groove is not the order of the majority of Far From Over, which is full of high-octane tracks such as “Into Action”, “Far From Over” and “Down to the Wire”, which features a brilliant solo by Shim and breakneck speed drumming from Sorey.
The record closes with “Threnody”, a track that, although it is much more than this, could be summed up in one word – crescendo. Iyer, who starts the track off with delicate and sparse playing, cedes center stage for Lehman in the middle of the third minute, who gives another example of his impressive solo chops as he leads the band into gradually more intense territory. Due to the vibrant and explorative playing throughout “Threnody” and the rest of the album, it’s hard to believe 58 minutes have passed by the time the listener reaches the end of Far From Over. Fueled by the at times seemingly non-stop energy of his sextet, this latest incarnation of Iyer’s creativity is a stunning achievement that further solidifies his status as one of the top musicians in modern jazz.
Brian Kiwanuka is a writer‚ attorney and music nerd but not in that order. He digs Armand Hammer‚ Alice Coltrane and Stevie Wonder and occasionally subjects his friends to detailed rants about music. You can check out more of his writing on 93 Million Miles Above.