It’s been said that the Cutting Edge is the most overpopulated place on the planet. If that’s the case, the Ringling International Arts Festival must be positively teeming because, in the festival’s attempt to be different, they’re also provocative and, at times, downright inflammatory.
It was my ears that became inflamed last week while attending a performance by the Vijay Iyer Trio. Iyer, who seems to have won every major prize from a MacArthur Fellow to an Echo Award, which is the German Grammy for best international pianist, was even voted 2010 Musician of the Year by the Jazz Journalists Association. So he is, presumably, doing something right. But, having heard him on two occasions — at RIAF last week, and at La Musica last season — for the life of me, I can’t figure out what.
Iyer, working this time with bassist Stephan Crump and drummer Marcus Gilmore, presented a program of jazzy, disconnected, repetitive pieces that all sounded pretty much the same, starting slowly, as if the group were tuning up, growing louder and louder, resolving to some inoffensive noodling, increasing again in intensity and, finally, coming to a conclusion. But that’s not what bothered me.
His repetitive rhythms and pounding intervals would make Philip Glass sound varied. Looking around at the audience, I saw several jazz heads nodding in what they thought was the beat. But it was a polyrhythmic beat so each head nodded to his or her own drummer (or bass player or pianist), giving the impression in the audience, as well as on stage, that everyone was disconnected and off in a world of his own.
This is the kind of music making that we heard in the 1960s and 1970s when the Me Generation of composers experimented with styles that didn’t last because they didn’t have any emotional connection with anyone. It’s the kind of music-making that may look good on paper (although much of this sounded improvised) but, when heard, forms only questions rather than a moving, expressive, affecting experience.
I say this as a musician whose ears felt assaulted rather than aroused, and whose heart was impassive and cold, instead of moved.
This is not to say the musicians weren’t talented. Iyer seems to be a virtuosic pianist who’s lost his way on the keyboard. I really couldn’t tell what bassist Crump was doing, except that he was obviously enamored with his own playing. But Gilmore, who went to the same high school I attended in New York City — many years later than I — is one of the most incredible drummers on the scene today. I’d love to hear him playing music I could connect with.
Perhaps I’m too old for this. Maybe it was just over amplified, again, as most of the RIAF performances seemed to be. Or maybe Iyer is really a very talented magician, pretending to be a musician, fooling most of the people most of the time.