Uneasy

Vijay Iyer, Linda May Han Oh, & Tyshawn Sorey

Uneasy

In the lexicon of jazz band configurations, the trio is perhaps most challenging. Triangulating compositions through just three instruments, there is ample space for each member to either sink or fly. For New York-based composer, professor and pianist Vijay Iyer, it's the perfect setting in which to showcase his intuitive, emotive approach to improvisation, one that feeds off collaboration as much as it is propelled by uncompromising individual thought. Despite having spent the past decade playing informally with bassist Linda May Han Oh and two decades recording and performing with drummer Tyshawn Sorey, Uneasy is his first in this trio configuration. “The impetus behind this album wasn’t necessarily a theme—it was just about the three of us playing together,” Iyer tells Apple Music. “As soon as we sat down together in 2019, I realised our playing had its own energy and drive, it demanded its own space for a project.”
The result is eight reimagined compositions from the past 20 years of Iyer’s work, as well as a tribute to his long-time mentor and friend Geri Allen and a reinterpretation of the jazz standard “Night and Day”. Uneasy takes its title from a 2011 collaboration with choreographer Karole Armitage, and its reference to the emotions of anxiety and discontent come to epitomise the ensuing narrative of the record as a whole. “We want you to inhabit this slightly turbulent space of the album, since life is not stable, as is increasingly revealed to us every day,” Iyer says as he guides us through each of Uneasy's tracks.
“Children of Flint” "I had been invited in 2019 to write a piece for a classical music context, and the theme was 'the year of water'. Immediately, I thought, ‘The year of water for whom? What about people who don't have it?’ In the US context, it becomes a political question, and with the Flint crisis, this was a moment where a political disaster caused an environmental disaster that disproportionately affected communities of colour. So I wrote a piece for solo viola called 'Song for Flint', which had a mournful and harrowing quality to it. There was a fragment of it that kept haunting me, and I wanted to keep that sense of rage and to direct energy and money to that community. When it came to the trio, I included this piece called 'Children of Flint' on the record, as it is both a child of the 'Song for Flint' and I imagined it playing for children or giving it to children."
“Combat Breathing” "This was originally created for the occasion of a Black Lives Matter protest that we did at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 2014, which was the year of the birth of the movement. That year, things came to a boil and we all wanted to divert energy in the direction of the people on the ground who were doing the work. With the trio’s interpretation, it has a sense of urgency to it, but then it also has a space where it imagines a different reality and it stretches out. Something that this group does best is to stretch out without too much provocation, to allow the music to blossom into a river of energy."
“Night and Day” "Joe Henderson made a version of this Cole Porter composition in 1966, which remakes the song. Musicians in the jazz lineage have always repurposed and reinvented pre-existing material on their own terms. It’s a transformative tradition of creating something else using a found text as a vehicle. With the trio, we wanted to capture the very colourful, bright energy of Henderson and McCoy Tyner’s version. I've been listening to that recording for 30 years and I've studied McCoy Tyner, trying to understand how he sets things in motion, how he anchors the sound and how he creates this spectrum of colours. Since he passed away last year, this is a tribute to him."
“Touba” "The poet Michael Ladd and I collaborated on an album called In What Language? in 2003, and there is a piece on there called 'Plastic Bag', which is based around a poem about a Senegalese street vendor in New York. He was part of this community that practised a version of Islam called Mouride; their mythic homeland is called Touba, and wherever they settle and build community, like in Harlem, you'll find these businesses called Touba. They carry this sense of home with them throughout the diaspora. That piece was called 'Plastic Bag' because this guy carried all his earthly belongings in this gigantic plastic sack, and this version is a travelling blues."
“Drummer’s Song” "I've been a fan of Geri Allen’s music and her playing since the late ’80s. I first heard her when I was 16, and later, in the early 2000s, I got to know her better, and she's been a hero to me ever since. She became a very nurturing and endlessly generous member of our community. Very few of us knew that she was suffering when she died of cancer at the age of 60 in 2017. I wanted to continue to study her music and to perform it and uphold her legacy as best as I can. Playing this composition of hers for the record was a nice challenge. It's really hard to pull off in the trio context because there's a lot of polyphony going on and everyone has to cover a lot of bases. She always made it look effortless."
“Augury” "For this track, we were all done with the recording sessions. Tyshawn and Linda went home and I just asked the engineer to hit record. In those moments, especially after a long day of recording, you're depleted and in a vulnerable state, which attunes you intuitively to certain things. I went in with no real agenda; I didn't know if I would make anything worth salvaging, I just decided to play something. This was what came out in that moment, and I call it ‘Augury' because it feels like a certain kind of divination. In that moment at the end of 2019, at the cusp of a disastrous year, what am I hearing?"
“Configurations” "It had been almost 20 years since I'd last performed this piece with Tyshawn and I dared him to play it to see if he remembered, and of course he did—he has a genius memory. We had fun pulling it together, particularly trying to do it as a trio because it has a challenging structure, but Linda and Tyshawn always rise above any challenge and make it into something better. It ended up becoming a set piece for us where there's all this energy being passed around rapidly and then there is a wild ending referencing different rhythmic techniques from South Indian music."
“Uneasy” "This piece was written for a collaboration with a dance company in 2011, and we were thinking about what it was to be an American 10 years after 9/11. It was the thick and thin of the Obama years—optimism and surveillance, truth and deception. 'Uneasy’ was the word for how none of that felt quite right. We were asking with the piece, what does it mean to come together with a certain kind of exuberance and yet to also know that there's something sinister beneath the surface that we are not talking about yet? Now, 10 years on, it still fits well with the current moment—perhaps even better. In American life, we're living in the echo of that time."
“Retrofit” "I wrote this originally for my sextet, since I wanted to make something that was dealing with new ideas rhythmically and harmonically. Reducing it to the trio format meant that it could be split open differently to become an interactive vehicle for us. Especially in the last few minutes, it becomes molten—it keeps changing shape, and that's something that we can do with the trio because we’re a rhythm section. A lot of what is happening in our work is rhythm being expressed and then shifting."
“Entrustment” "So often with the trio, we're creating an intimate version of something more grand, which is the case with ‘Entrustment’, a composition I wrote as part of a larger suite for a string orchestra. The suite was called ‘City of Sand’ and it was inspired by me visiting the site of an incredible network of several hundred Buddhist cave temples in the Gobi Desert. It was this crossroads of all these different cultures, and ‘Entrustment’ was the closing meditation, a processional embrace of that kind of openness, expansiveness and emptiness. It's only two chords—it’s made of almost nothing, it's just those qualities coming together."

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