Vijay Iyer shows a strong personal voice at London Piano Festival: 4/5 Stars

The musician and composer incorporated a wide range of references at Kings Place but also extemporised freely

By Mike Hobart for Financial Times


American pianist/composer Vijay Iyer is just as at home in the world of classical music as that of jazz. Schooled in violin from an early age, he is also a prolific composer of contemporary works. His composition Human Archipelago for Cello and Orchestra premiered earlier this month at London’s Royal Festival Hall in the company of Mendelssohn’s Fifth Symphony and the overture to Wagner’s Tannhäuser.

This solo performance at Kings Place occupied the jazz slot of the annual London Piano Festival. Iyer is largely self-taught in piano, having learnt mainly by ear, and his strong personal voice absorbs the influences of South Asian musical traditions and late 20th-century jazz. In this performance, there were traces of McCoy Tyner, Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea; late in the set, he referenced compositions by Billy Strayhorn, Cole Porter and Thelonious Monk.

But Iyer extemporises freely, and he began this set by probing at the edges of a peaceful melodic line. Shaded discords fleshed out harmony while sparse trills tinkled in the upper range, lines grew more complex and the dynamic use of pedals added further emotional twists. A brief pause signalled a new piece, built on a fractured pedal-point and laden with syncopated lines. Calls gained a rapid response, modal thumps surged, and fast, cleanly articulated lines pulsated with rhythm. Then, a third train of thought was introduced by gently passing chords, their notes left hanging as low-note rumbles menaced underneath.

Compositional rigour established, the pianist explained the mechanics of his enthralling set. “It’s a stroll through my personal archive,” he said. “More of a how than a what”, he added, cueing a warm-hearted vamp with a clear harmonic path. Some minutes in, the theme of Monk’s “Work” crystallised from a mist of ruminative clusters and jagged rhythmic lines before Monk’s “Friday the 13th” was pulled this way and that without losing form.

Later in the set, Iyer captured the bittersweet, life-affirming essence of Strayhorn’s “Blood Count” with a combination of melodic development and elements of stride. And a short-and-sweet cover of Cole Porter’s “Night and Day” pared back the melody to its essence.

The remainder of the evening was based on original work. The panoramic details of “Autoscopy” were inspired by out-of-body experiences, and the optimistic waltz “Taking Flight” was conjoined with the uneasy complexities of “Children of Flint”. The sparse chromatic ripples that ushered in the encore, “Abundance”, ended on a sustained single note. Each multi-faceted piece was packed with detail, held together as a cohesive whole by the discipline of Iyer’s compositional approach.