The retro-minded, hip-hop savvy West Coast scene that spawned Kamasi Washington, Terrace Martin and other breakout stars is just one indicator of where jazz is headed. A group of East Coast composer-improvisers – led by pianist Vijay Iyer, saxophonist Steve Lehman and drummer Tyshawn Sorey – have spent the last decade-plus masterminding a more futuristic approach. Back in 2008, Iyer, Lehman and Sorey planted a flag with their stunningly poised prog-jazz collective Fieldwork; now after pursuing their own diverse projects (Iyer’s genre-mashing, Grammy-nominated trio and reflective duo with trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith; Lehman’s hyper-ambitious octet and globalist avant-rap crew Sélébéyone; Sorey’s meditative jazz-meet-classical ventures), the three meet back up under Iyer’s leadership on Far From Over, the pianist and Harvard prof’s latest for the legendary ECM imprint. If you’re looking for the shape of jazz to come, here it is.
Iyer’s compositions are both dazzlingly complex and furiously funky. Opener “Poles” builds from a hushed vamp to a clanking ballet mécanique, with Lehman, tenor saxist Mark Shim and brass player Graham Haynes fanning out in precise formation over a slippery rhythm from Iyer, Sorey and bassist Stephan Crump that suggests a breakbeat Meshuggah. On “Down to the Wire,” following a scorching Shim solo, the horns snap into turbo-bebop mode, whipping through a knotty line at a breathtaking pace, while on “Good on the Ground,” the band weaves in and out of Sorey’s pounding polyrhythmic march. The leader isn’t stingy with his solos – his sparse turn on the strutting groove tune “Nope” invokes Monk’s sly wit – but overall, he seems more interested in spotlighting his collaborators, especially the way Lehman and Shim’s choppy intensity contrasts with the spacier sound of Haynes’ flugelhorn and cornet (sometimes, as on “End of the Tunnel,” given a Miles-style electronic sheen).
Other tracks trade mini-big-band fireworks for stirring texture. On “For Amiri Baraka” – dedicated to the late poet, critic and free-jazz torchbearer – the horns sit out, leaving Iyer, Crump and Sorey to work their way from a moody ballad to a churchy R&B-like climax. The hypnotic, gradually swelling mood piece “Wake” sounds like In a Silent Way played at the bottom of the ocean.
In the past Iyer has sprinkled his albums with covers
– from Michael Jackson’s “Human Nature” and M.I.A.’s “Galang” to pieces
by avant-jazz luminaries like Henry Threadgill and Julius Hemphill – but Far From Over is entirely his vision and
all the better for it. In a post–To Pimp
a Butterfly jazz moment, when the genre’s burgeoning pop ties can sometimes
overshadow nitty-gritty aesthetics, Iyer & Co. are doubling down on the
values that got them here. Far From Over
might lack an obvious mainstream hook, but the sturdiness of its design and the
passion of its execution make it 2017’s jazz album to beat.