As prolific as he is, jazz pianist Vijay Iyer isn’t known for casually undertaking new projects. In the liner notes to his first unaccompanied session, “Solo,” he recalls an early fascination with Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk and other influences: “. . . the audible poise behind the notes, the purposefulness with which the piano is confronted, the grandeur in the approach.”
Those lessons pay off handsomely on “Solo,” first with a richly harmonized interpretation of the Michael Jackson hit “Human Nature” and then with a series of original tunes and jazz standards that reveal a keen attention to detail and dynamics. And, yes, tunes by Ellington (a resounding, two-handed “Black & Tan Fantasy”) and Monk (an imaginatively reconfigured “Epistrophy”) rank among the highlights, alongside “One for Blount,” Iyer’s knotty tribute to Sun Ra.
Iyer’s new trio album, “Tirtha,” marks Iyer’s first recording collaboration with two renowned musicians from India: guitarist Prasanna and tabla player/vocalist Nitin Mitta. “Tirtha” is Sanskrit for “crossing,” but you needn’t be aware of the definition — or Iyer’s previous cross-cultural recordings — to appreciate the distinctive chemistry that elevates the album. It boasts nine original compositions, and razor sharp interplay is evident throughout.
--Mike Joyce, April 29, 2011