Vijay Iyer’s creative gifts are many, but more and more it seems his most striking trait centers on design expertise. The 43-year-old pianist may revel in the momentary wonder that’s born of jazz’s collaborative exchange, but when it comes to time to present those achievements to an audience, he makes sure that every nuance is aligned for maximum impact. This tack was in play on the celebrated trio records Historicity and Accelerando, but seems to truly define the action on Break Stuff. Positioning, flow, calibration, order – each is keenly considered here, and each helps make this the trio’s most compelling date so far.
Balance is paramount. Iyer’s interests trigger a wealth of ideas, and from the trio’s rhythmic slants (one track conjures Robert Hood’s crackling techno beats) to the pianist’s keyboard touch (Andrew Hill’s sense of stealth gets a nod at various points) the larger picture is always kept in view. The program’s three “bird” tunes (“Starlings,” “Geese” and “Wrens” – four if you count “Taking Flight,” I guess) are fragments from a larger work Iyer built with novelist Teju Cole, and they offer discrete approaches for the band’s investigations. Moving from a welcoming reverie that foreshadows the album’s sweep to a textural meditation both luminous and abstruse to a bittersweet adieu that brims with allure, Break Stuff’s emotional arc is always being bolstered.
The fact that this is a working band can’t be over-appreciated. The music’s particulars are executed wonderfully by bassist Stephan Crump and drummer Marcus Gilmore. Mood swings – and there are several – build unity, not disarray. The best example is the jump from the machine-like repetition of “Hood” to the sage wobble of Monk’s “Work” – the dead serious meets the utterly whimsical. Like the segue from the pensive solo version of Strayhorn’s “Blood Count” to the album’s frenzied title cut, it reveals the trio’s natural latitude. There’s big mojo in those kind of transitions, and ultimately they underscore Iyer’s purpose. He wants his music to go everywhere.