Friday, May 13, 2011

Music at the Edge of Intellect - Eldar Djangirov and Vijay Iyer at the McCarter Theater

I just strolled back up campus from the aforementioned show in a pretty good mood. Vijay and his trio (with Tyshawn Sorey sitting in for Marcus Gilmore on drums) had a very satisfying set. It was full of rhythmic playfulness, the kind where you bob your head to some undiscernible underlying pulse. Moods swung from meditative and brooding to blissfully cathartic. Iyer, Sorey and bassist Stephen Crumb are on another plane musically. They privileged the audience with a brief look into their rhythmic wonderland.

So, um, what did I think of Eldar's opening set?

How can I put this lightly...

The old folks behind me seemed to enjoy it a lot :)

I on the other hand had a bit more difficulty. As a preface for what is to come, I was enamored by Eldar last time I saw him. I was sixteen going on seventeen. Naive, timid, and scared was I, though with budding jazz chops. He just played so fast and in 7 and I just thought, "Wow he's only 19! This is so nuts." I of course sheepishly got an autograph afterward and awkwardly commented on his stuff in 7.

The first instinct that a lot of my friends and I have about Eldar is that his virtuosity is just a novelty. It's impressive, a good bit of showmanship, and the audience usually responds as such (tonight was no exception). But even as a stingy, artsy music snob, I usually react well to good showmanship. Jazz has been filled with expert showmen like Oscar Peterson, Buddy Rich, Dizzy Gillespie, and Papa Jo Jones (please comment with anyone I left out), dating all the way back to Louis Armstrong. The inimitable Roots (they're a jazz band in my book) continue this tradition every night on Jimmy Fallon's show. But tonight, I didn't get any feeling of showmanship from Eldar. His virtuosity is eerily unselfconscious. I feel that what he played tonight is his own honest music. Yet after all of his hyperactivity and machine gun phrasing, I was left cold, dozing off in the heat of battle.

As I walked back tonight, I thought about the reason for this disconnect. I'm not usually the one coming out of a concert thinking I just didn't get it. This was a really weird feeling. After a good ponder, I feel Eldar's music is something like jazz with Asperger's (ok, I did think of jaszperger's, but that seems like unfair cheap shot). The virtuosity and ease of his playing is savant-like, seemingly beyond what any other human can do. However, the music lacks the nuance that makes emotional expression and recognition possible. It all comes off as a rote exercise in musical recall.

Eldar's so-cerebral-it's-scary music is an interesting foil for Vijay and his trio. Iyer is potentially the sharpest guy in the jazz world, or at least the most over-educated (BA in physics and math from Yale, MS/PhD from Cal Berkeley. Really says a lot coming from me huh. Ba dum crash.) Annnnnnyway...

So what's going through Mr. Iyer's big brain? Does it really matter?
I'm just saying that one would think Iyer's music would be the one that suffers from intellectual incomprehensibility, rather than Eldar's. His music can be pretty heady, like the third tune from tonight's show, called "Cardio." It starts off in this really fast 3+4 pattern that feels like it's in 2 but with beats of slightly different lengths. Then they layer groups of 5 and 6 beats on top of it. Sounds like a rhythmic morass, doesn't it?

The big guy with the little drum set
But to be totally honest, I wasn't really paying attention to all that rhythmic stuff. I only figured it out after talking to the trio in the lobby. In the moment, I was dialed into the slippery groove. The piece built up gradually, gathering tension as notes flew by in ever-denser clusters. And suddenly, Tyshawn burst the musical knot open with a thundering cymbal crash followed by a riveting drum solo. The piece's complex mathematical time signature wasn't what made it engaging. Instead I like to think the performance was great despite the complex clave. Vijay, Stephen, and Tyshawn are so secure in their rhythmic feel that they can play the piece with total commitment, nuance, and flexibility. In the end, "Cardio" and the rest of the trio's set brimmed with vital communicative power. Call it passion, call it soul, call it whatever you want. You just know it when you hear it and when you hear it, it feels pretty good.

1 comment:

  1. Kevin, your comments about Eldar remind me of Dave Weckl. His early CDs as a leader demonstrate his technical superiority but leave this listener (a jazz drummer) flat. On later CDs he develops more groove and flow, so the music sounds less impressive and more enjoyable.
    Keep writing; I like your stuff.