Iyer quartet emerging as formidable force
By Howard Reich
Chicago Tribune arts critic

In the past decade or so, a new generation of jazz artists has reinvigorated the art form with the musical impulses of foreign cultures.

Take away the contributions of Panamanian pianist Danilo Perez, Puerto Rican saxophonist David Sanchez, Cuban pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba, Israeli bassist Avishai Cohen and Chilean vocalist Claudia Acuna, among others, and jazz would be shorn of some of its freshest sources of inspiration.

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The point rang out again over the weekend, when pianist Vijay Iyer led his startlingly effective quartet at the Green Mill Jazz Club. Joined by alto saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa, a comparably adventurous musician who could be considered Iyer's alter ego (or vice versa), the pianist-bandleader explored the place where American jazz and traditional Indian music intersect, while also pushing into otherwise unexpected territory.

Iyer and Mahanthappa for years have brought elements of their Indian cultural heritage to bear on their jazz improvisations, but never before has the merger sounded as persuasive or seamless as it did Friday night at the Green Mill. Rather than merely apply Indian scales and melodic patterns to jazz-improvisational techniques, they absorbed the spirit and sensibility of this music into the framework of an unflinchingly forward-looking jazz quartet.

Imagine the fervor of Indian chant — with its hypnotically repeated, gloriously melismatic turns of phrase — pulsing in a music that's already harmonically pungent and rhythmically alive, and you have a rough idea of the urgency and originality of this idiom.

Yet Iyer, in particular, never veered into densely arcane passagework or abstruse chordal structures. If in previous years he sometimes has overstated his case, nearly overwhelming the music with all-over-the-keyboard virtuosity, on this occasion he tempered his pianism. By offering lushly pictorial playing on "Revolutions," introspective soliloquies on "Inertia" and traces of funk rhythm in other works, Iyer rendered his approach more accessible than ever. The same tunes, incidentally, drive Iyer's exceptional new recording, the aptly named "Reimagining" (on Savoy Jazz).

Anyone who heard Mahanthappa when he lived in Chicago, in the 1990s, will recall the torrents of sound that he produced on alto saxophone. But Mahanthappa has come a long way since then, harnessing his energy, enriching his tone and focusing his improvisations. The smoldering intensity of his sometimes fleet, sometimes incantatory phrases, particularly on the searing "Song for Midwood," represented a new highpoint in his maturation.

Yet this quartet wouldn't be nearly so powerful were it not for the rhythmic collaboration among Iyer, pianist Stephan Crump and drummer Marcus Gilmore. The three players practically have become a single rhythmic organism; if they build on this achievement in coming years, they could emerge as one of the great rhythm units of the day.