Vi­jay Iyer en­ters bold new ter­ri­tory

Los Angeles Times - - CALENDAR - By Chris Bar­ton

Stand­ing near the lip of the stage, Vi­jay Iyer strug­gled for the right words as he ad­dressed the Ojai Mu­sic Fes­ti­val crowd Satur­day night at a sold-out Libbey Bowl. Reach­ing for some way to de­scribe his feel­ings head­ing into the per­for­mance, Iyer set­tled on “some­thing be­tween a fam­ily gath­er­ing, a rock con­cert and that TV show ‘This Is Your Life.’ ”

On the night’s bill was a piece called “Radhe Radhe,” a trib­ute to Stravin­sky’s beloved “Rite of Spring” with mu­sic by Iyer, who was set to col­lab­o­rate with the In­ter­na­tional Con­tem­po­rary Ensem­ble, or ICE, and com­poser Tyshawn Sorey, the long­time drum­mer in his trio.

Rhythms bus­tled, melodies spi­raled and the churn­ing string sec­tion made time to clap in a sort of punc­tu­a­tion with Sorey’s drive of bells and drums. It was an ec­static piece to match ec­static vi­su­als by the late film­maker Prashant Bhargava of the “Hindu Rites of Holi,” Iyer’s rest­less pi­ano cir­cling the piece’s frame­work from the rear of the or­ches­tra.

The set was just one of many shifts in di­rec­tion for Iyer and for the Ojai fes­ti­val as a whole.

Though it proudly boasts a long-held tra­di­tion of rein­ven­tion that rises from each year fea­tur­ing a new mu­sic di­rec­tor from a dif­fer­ent dis­ci­pline, the fes­ti­val has been most as­so­ci­ated with clas­si­cal mu­sic, al­beit while al­low­ing for the oc­ca­sional nod to­ward jazz (a 1962 ap­pear­ance by Eric Dol­phy has been a fre­quent touch­stone).

This year of­fered some­thing of a re­verse, a move that in­spired The Times to of­fer im­pres­sions of the fes­ti­val from both the clas­si­cal and jazz per­spec­tive.

And while the four-day fes­ti­val un­doubt­edly bore Iyer’s unique stamp as a mu­si­cian, there was an in­creas­ingly clear sense that any temp­ta­tion to cat­e­go­rize that im­pres­sion — a sort of “Ojai goes jazz” short­hand — felt like a di­min­ish­ment and a be­trayal of the broad, bor­der­less and ul­ti­mately com­mu­nal view of mu­sic that Iyer aimed to con­vey.

Certainly, if you went look­ing for jazz at Ojai this week­end, you would find it. Quo­ta­tions from Th­elo­nious Monk, John Coltrane and Charles Min­gus topped a num­ber of per­for­mance de­scrip­tions in­side the fes­ti­val pro­gram, and the clos­ing con­cert from Iyer’s sex­tet — a ram­bunc­tious, fu­ri­ously funky set that the pi­anist in­tro­duced as “his easy gig” with a horn sec­tion of Mark Shim, Steve Lehman and Graham Haynes — of­fered the sort of head-bob­bing drive and in­ven­tion that has landed Iyer on mul­ti­ple be­stof lists over the years and, in part, into this gig too.

But his mu­sic and the fes­ti­val at large were much harder to pin down and grate­fully struck a con­sid­er­able blow against the genre la­bels that Iyer and so many artists be­fore him have vig­or­ously re­sisted.

Where, for in­stance, would you file Satur­day af­ter­noon’s “Con­duc­tion” per­for­mance? Fea­tur­ing ICE in a con­tin­u­a­tion of the work of the late Butch Mor­ris, the piece found Sorey con­duct­ing the ensem­ble’s im­pro­vi­sa­tions with a va­ri­ety of ges­tures. A flick of the wrist spurred a few clang­ing of bells, and a sweep of the arm drew ideas fur­ther for­ward. Other ges­tures — four point­ers jut­ting from Sorey’s hand, or a hand-held white­board bear­ing some di­rec­tive to the mu­si­cians on the band­stand — were more in­scrutable.

Claire Chase boldly leaned into mul­ti­ple ven­tures on flute, and Re­bekah Heller con­jured the spirit of Al­bert Ayler on bas­soon. The mu­sic, which fea­tured all man­ner of click­ing valves and un­ex­pected sound across the stage, was stormy and raw and also ven­tured some­where well be­yond words.

Of a sim­i­lar spirit, an early morn­ing free con­cert be­tween three lions of Chicago’s AACM in Muhal Richard Abrams, Roscoe Mitchell and George Lewis dis­played a mas­tery of open im­pro­vi­sa­tion. Mitchell, who has a dou­ble-al­bum “Bells for the South Side” due on ECM this sum­mer, shifted be­tween (or shared) two sax­o­phones as Lewis, seated be­hind a ta­ble and al­ter­nat­ing be­tween trom­bone and lap­top, shad­owed him elec­tron­i­cally or oth­er­wise over a spa­cious, ever-shift­ing piece. Abrams, his head low over the pi­ano, con­jured dense, fog-like rum­bles that were briefly re­cast by Lewis with a bassy, trance-like pulse that con­tin­ued to shift un­til it dis­solved, an­other mo­ment that ar­rived, was ad­dressed and was gone.

Late the night be­fore, Iyer shifted into cham­ber mu­sic with the Brentano Quar­tet for a stormy piece ded­i­cated to the late po­et­ac­tivist Amiri Baraka, but it was framed by two star­tling vo­cal con­tri­bu­tions. Strik­ingly bathed in a stark spot­light, bari­tone Davóne Tines sum­moned a kalei­do­scope of emo­tions as he stretched and carved into the fa­mil­iar form of “Amaz­ing Grace,” and Court­ney Bryan’s much-an­tic­i­pated “Yet Un­heard” sum­moned the spirit of the late San­dra Bland through lead vo­cal­ist Helga Davis. As it closed, the piece was re­ceived with a mo­ment of haunted si­lence that had been un­prompted; there was sim­ply no other way to re­spond.

Sun­day also brought to­gether an­other an­tic­i­pated col­lab­o­ra­tion in Iyer with long­time friend and alto sax­o­phon­ist Ru­dresh Ma­han­thappa along with tabla great Zakir Hus­sain and vo­cal­ist Aruna Sairam.

Iyer and Ma­han­thappa, both South Asian Amer­i­cans, have a long his­tory of in­cor­po­rat­ing their shared back­ground into their mu­sic (while, as Iyer put it in the pro­gram notes, “ne­go­ti­at­ing the pit­falls of pi­geon­hol­ing and self-ex­oti­ciza­tion”), and here the group grace­fully nav­i­gated ter­ri­tory be­yond la­bels. Seated on a drum riser next to Hus­sain with her arms twist­ing be­fore her with ev­ery ex­tended syl­la­ble, Sairam’s voice arced amid the rus­tle of the trees to open “City of Sand,” an Iyer piece that as his pi­ano bounded to the fore­front seam­lessly twisted into a sort of blues.

As the set went on, Car­natic ra­gas of Sairam’s South In­dian tra­di­tion merged with the Hin­dus­tani clas­si­cal tra­di­tion of Hus­sain. Im­pro­vi­sa­tion and in­ven­tion from two con­ti­nents staked out new ground some­where in be­tween. Was it jazz? Maybe. But as a whole, this year’s gath­er­ing in Ojai thrived un­der its long-held, suit­ably broad um­brella of “mu­sic fes­ti­val,” and an ex­cel­lent, en­gross­ing one at that. Ul­ti­mately, those are the only la­bels that mat­ter.

Brian van der Brug Los An­ge­les Times

TYSHAWN SOREY’S bells and drums pro­pel Vi­jay Iyer’s piece, “Emer­gence.”

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