Album du jour: Vijay Iyer’s “Mutations”

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And so, with “Mutations,” jazz pianist-composer Vijay Iyer, the cerebral, MacArthur-winning Yale grad, Berkeley PhD and soon-to-be Harvard professor, makes his debut as a leader on ECM, the German record label specializing in cerebral, spare, musical contemplations accompanied by abstruse liner notes and packaged in somber shades of blue-gray.  What took them so long?

But these are not mere jazz tunes here.  No, the album contains “works,” such as “Spellbound and Sacrosanct, Cowrie Shells and the Shimmering Sea for piano” and “Mutations I – X for string quartet, piano and electronics.”  Funny, I don’t recall Duke Ellington or Thelonious Monk specifying the scoring of their, uh, works on their albums, e.g., “Jeep’s Blues for alto saxophone and jazz orchestra” or “Rhythm-a-Ning for tenor saxophone, piano, contrabass and percussion.”

OK, apples and oranges, or perhaps the Five Spot and Sanders Theater.  As to the works themselves, the pièce de résistance is the aforementioned “Mutations,” a set of ten movements with titles like “Canon,” “Chain,” “Waves” and “Time.”  Here’s Iyer’s explanation:

A mutation process drives each of the ten episodes. In some sections, minute variations or fluctuations in a recurring figure ultimately elicit a structural transformation; in other movements, real-time acts governed by competing directives yield an emergent, spontaneous order. These ten coexisting entities are linked either genetically or by a kind of symbiosis.

Fans of such composers as Steve Reich, Arvo Pärt and David Lang will immediately hear what’s going on in some of these “coexisting entities.”  A rhythmic or melodic process initiated at the beginning of the piece plays itself out, then the piece ends.  Other pieces involve the conflict and play of contrasting ideas, reminding me, especially in the second piece, “Rise,” of Ruth Crawford Seeger’s remarkable 1931 String Quartet — an intentional similarity?  Oddly, the piano enters only in the middle of the third piece, “Canon.”  The electronics are used sparingly and discretely, to the point where they may as well have been dispensed with altogether.  The string writing is reasonably effective, if unadventurous, and well-played by a quartet including former Smith College cellist Kivie Cahn-Lipman.

As to whether the ten movements “yield an emergent, spontaneous order,” I’m not so sure.  Whether a Bach Partita or an Ellington Suite, the best multi-movement works are more than just the sum of their parts.  They’re poems in several stanzas, books in many chapters, unified statements with direction and purpose.  Yes, the ten “Mutations” obviously share some common musical DNA.  But for me, they did not cohere into anything more than ten musical siblings presented in no particular order.  Neither did they come close to fully exploring the possiblities Iyer created for himself.  In this case, sadly, “minimalist” better describes the music’s impact than its style.

The album also contains three pieces for piano with or without electronics, composed and played in Iyer’s post-post-Bill Evans impressionist style.  So discrete, so tasteful, so exquisite were these pieces that they just about made me scream.  I know that moderation is a virtue.  But in music, too much moderation can be a vice.  And that’s why much as I like some of “Mutations,” I can’t love it.  Though I admire Iyer’s intellect and creativity, I prefer music that, even in a little way, satisfies the baser human desires.

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