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by Seth Colter Walls

August 6, 2012

Vijay Iyer, Young Jazz Superstar

by Seth Colter Walls  |  August 6, 2012

In this June's 60th annual DownBeat critics poll, jazz pianist Vijay Iyer won in an unprecedented five different categories: Artist of the Year, Top Jazz Album (for this year's Accelerando), Top Group (for his Vijay Iyer Trio), the "Rising Star" award as a composer, and also (duh, given all those wins) Top Pianist.

The most interesting thing about this virtual sweep is how unsurprising it was, at least to the jazz public. Fans and critics (and even lay people not normally into jazz) have been digging Iyer for a few years now. Though he'd been doing great work for more than a decade, his "big break" was probably the innovative cover of M.I.A.'s "Galang" on the Vijay Iyer Trio's first record, 2009's Historicity.

That trio seems to play any kind of music memorably well. It's not just that they can do "pop" covers and "jazz" covers; rather, it's the group's jaw-dropping diversity within those discrete worlds. Their definition of "pop" includes Stevie Wonder, but also Flying Lotus and Ronnie Foster. (Check how the band lingers over a lick, toward the end of "Mystic Brew," that looks ahead to the way Foster's tune was later sampled by A Tribe Called Quest for "Electric Relaxation": Talk about "historicity," you know?) And their jazz heroes are similarly wide-ranging in nature: There's Duke Ellington, of course, but also hat-tips to such lesser-known composer/players as Henry Threadgill and Julius Hemphill (whose 11/8 time signature on "Dogon A.D." is one of the best beats in all of music, for all time, no hyperbole).

Under the heading of "embarrassment of riches," we're obliged to note that the Trio is not the only world-class group Iyer has joined lately: He's also part of Fieldwork, alongside fellow contemporary leading lights Tyshawn Sorey and Steve Lehman. Aaaand he's got another group called Tirtha, which takes Indian classical moves for a spin in an improvised setting. (Philip Glass recently invited them to play at a festival celebrating his 75th birthday, in case you were looking for a co-sign.) Past musical cohorts include the incandescent Rudresh Mahanthappa (check the burn on the politically pissed-off original tune "Macaca Please"). The pianist is no slouch all by himself, as his explorations of Thelonious Monk and Michael Jackson tunes prove on 2010's Solo.

Each of these projects is stunning in its own way -- and each recording worthy of full and frequent investigations -- but here's an overview playlist to get you started. If you've never heard Iyer, you're in for a treat. And even if you've paid attention to some of his most talked-about performances, odds are that you've still got lots of good listening ahead of you.

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