JAM, VIII: Vijay Iyer on "Actions Speak"

Every weekday this month I'll be posting new content in observance of Jazz Appreciation Month (J.A.M.), so-designated by the Smithsonian National Museum of American History beginning in 2001. International Jazz Day, so-designated by UNESCO in partnership with the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz, is on the last day of April, the 30th; it was first celebrated in 2012. Debating the relative merits of designating specific days or months for celebrating heritages, traditions, and the like aside, Jazz Appreciation Month is at the very least an excuse to dig into some material that I've been interested in for a while on the blog. 

Yesterday's installment featured Clifford Brown playing chorus after amazing chorus on "After You've Gone" just months before his tragic early death. Monday's will feature Eric Dolphy taking an unaccompanied solo on "Take the 'A' Train" on bass clarinet in Europe, also sadly just months before his early passing. 

†If you enjoy the content on this blog, please consider supporting my band's homegrown effort to get our record through the final stages of mastering and production. It's all recorded—you can listen to it now!—but we just need a bit more help to get to the finish line. We appreciate it. </self-promotion over>

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Like the Bud Powell on "'Round Midnight" transcription, this (incomplete) solo transcription from Accelerando was a final project for a class on "Jazz Styles." 

Vijay Iyer, post-MacArthur Fellowship in 2013 (Courtesy of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation)

Vijay, like some other contemporary composer-improvisors, doesn't write chord symbols—instead, he writes the specific voicing or set of pitches the way he hears them. In one interview or another, he mentions how he realized writing something like "G7" tends to (but not always) lull musicians into automatically playing their "G7 stuff," rather than creating something out of the fabric of the composition and with the personalities of the other musicians. The chord symbols I've indicated here are based on the harmonic colors implied during the pre-composed material, which the trio uses as a launching point.

I've appended my so-called academic analysis at the end of this, which I don't recall very much since I wrote it in one breathless draft late the night before, a process not unlike how the majority of these blog posts are written. But, maybe somebody might find something useful in there. 

BOSTONIANS/CANTABRIGIANS: The Vijay Iyer Trio performs tonight and tomorrow night, two sets per night, at Harvard Square's Regatta Bar in the Charles Hotel. Check it out.

Vijay Iyer Solo Transcription - "Actions Speak" 1

Vijay Iyer Solo Transcription - "Actions Speak" 2

Vijay Iyer Solo Transcription - "Actions Speak" 3

"Analysis" (reproduced below)

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JS579 Final Project: “Actions Speak,” Vijay Iyer

Kevin Sun


“Actions Speak,” from “Accelerando” (ACT Music), recorded August 6-8, 2011, featuring Vijay Iyer (piano), Stephan Crump (bass), Marcus Gilmore (drums).

            In the liner notes to Accelerando, Vijay Iyer writes:

            music is action: the sound of bodies in motion. when we hear a rhythm, we imagine the act that gave rise to it. some call it neural mirroring, or empathy. music and dance are linked in this way: bodies listening to bodies. if music has ever moved you, then you already know. 
this album is in the lineage of american creative music based on dance rhythms. we place our small acts alongside those of others in that tradition: duke ellington (the closing track is from his ballet “the river”), herbie nichols, henry threadgill, michael jackson, heatwave, and flying lotus.
            Iyer’s attention to rhythm was the subject of his 1998 interdisciplinary Ph.D dissertation, Microstructures of Feel, Macrostructures of Sound: Embodied Cognition in West African and African-American Musics, which discussed aspects of microrhythmic expressivity in West African and African-American musics through the framework of neurocognition, a field that was and still is rapidly developing and yielding new advances in musical understanding.
            In the world of jazz and improvised music, Iyer, a self-taught pianist and musical omnivore, has been influenced by his work with mentors such as saxophonists Steve Coleman and Roscoe Mitchell, among others, and his study of the music of artists in the Chicago-based Association for the Advancement for Creative Musicians (of which Roscoe Mitchell, Muhal Richard Abrams, Henry Threadgill, and numerous others were a part), Thelonious Monk, Duke Ellington, Andrew Hill, Cecil Taylor, and many other artists.

“Actions Speak”

            On “Actions Speak,” the trio negotiates a brisk rhythmic landscape anchored by an eleven beat cycle, which is subdivided into four beats, three beats, and four beats. The ergonomically-designed opening right hand piano ostinato, a six beat figure, is imposed and repeated over the 11-beat cycle, resolving after six bars of 11/8 (or 66 beats); during this time, the left hand accents two strong beats on beat one and beat eight, omitting the middle three-beat subdivision. The solo form is AAB, with two six-bar A sections suggesting C#m(b6) and variants thereof and a six-bar B section suggesting Dm6/9. 
            The initial challenge of the piece is preserving the integrity of the eleven beat cycle. The most obvious means of doing so is playing the subdivisions, which is heard in Iyer’s opening line:
            The line, which spans nearly four octaves, clearly outlines the 4-3-4 subdivision (note that mm. 4 and 6 are exact repetitions an octave apart), with primarily descending arpeggiated motion (exceptions include bar two, which has a one-beat anticipation of the 3 subdivision).
            The pianistic opening ostinato foreshadows other “pianisms,” including a shape that Iyer favors throughout the solo: a large interval that either opens up from or closes an intermediate tone (mm. 17-18):
As Iyer points out in the liner notes, the rhythmic profile of these shapes, which naturally tend to accent certain tones (the beginning of measure 17 emphasizes the top tones, beats one and three, for instance), cause us to “imagine the act that gave rise to it.” There is a pronounced referential quality to these lines that draw attention to the hand-edness of these lines.
            Another compelling aspect of the solo is the layering of smaller rhythmic units across the 11 beat cycle. Measures 27-30 demonstrate the sound of a four note pattern spread across the course of four bars before transforming into a three note descending shape that ascends in conjunction with a left hand line that accents weak beats:
At the top of the third chorus comes one of the most astonishing moments of the track: both hands, now playing chords, begin to interact rhythmically to generate a dramatic hocketed texture. Iyer’s left hand plays variants of the subdivision while his right hand modulates between four beat and three beat chords with occasional two beat “hiccups”:
The alternation between chords and single note lines recurs elsewhere in the solo. During the second A section of the fourth chorus, Iyer returns to playing octaves and chords that coincide with another peak in the solo’s dramatic arc:
Harmonically speaking, Iyer tends to play within the given sound of each section, generating interest primarily melodically and rhythmically through the use of intervallic shapes; he does use some chromaticism from time to time to add more color, as in mm. 23-4:
Throughout, Marcus Gilmore and Stephan Crump can be heard commenting, interjecting, and interacting as part of the surging groove. Unfortunately, Gilmore’s drumming largely proved too complex for this transcriber to productively study, although the very beginning of the solo shows how the drum-bass duo set the stage for later interactions by outlining major features of the rhythmic cycle: Crump primarily playing on the 3 and second 4 grouping strong beats, and Gilmore selectively coloring on and around those markers (mm. 1-4):
Just as Gilmore effortlessly plays across the barline while managing to reconnect with Iyer at key moments of synchronicity (particularly the downbeats of six-bar sections), Crump doesn’t just play downbeats; he also uses harmonics and his upper register to change textures (14-5):
“Actions Speak” is a modern marvel of group improvisation, a state of the art demonstration in the outer bounds of rhythmic expression and what is possible in this music.

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The first time I saw and heard Vijay play was on February 18, 2011. It was the spring of my freshman year, and I'd seen his name floating around the jazz media-sphere, so I took a chance and bought a ticket to see him at Regatta Bar, where he's performing this weekend. I arrived late for whatever reason, and expected to get a pretty terrible seat (the sound in the venue is so-so, but outside the main seating area under the overhang is especially bad), but was led through the crowded room to a seat right behind the piano bench. I sat a few feet from Vijay the whole show and was mesmerized by the sound coming out of the piano, particularly the emanations from the low register. 

The following spring, I ended up working with him briefly in a workshop setting at Harvard as part of a Silk Road Ensemble educational program, which was when he mentioned off-hand that I might look into applying for Banff.* The deadline was about to be extended by a few days, so I scrambled to assemble an application, getting recommendation letters two days before the deadline. I was able to secure a grant through Harvard's Office For the Arts that paid for the program plus airfare and other expenses, and attending Banff became my introduction into whole other worlds of improvisation-composition, including the AACM, Steve Coleman/M-Base, and basically everything that's been informing what I've been checking out in the three or so years since. Everything is life-changing in some way, but catching Vijay at the Regatta Bar four years ago must have set some of this all into motion, so for that I'm deeply grateful.

*The Banff website also still features my testimonial from a few years ago; it'll probably change soon, but I still stand by what I wrote, especially now that I spend a few hours a week practicing self-hypnotizing in jazz school.