Vijay Iyer | Theater Critic's Choice | Chicago Reader

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Pianist Vijay Iyer, the son of immigrants from southern India, takes his heritage quite seriously; that he has managed to honor it while creating vital and thought-provoking jazz suggests that we should take him seriously in turn. In his liner notes for his debut album, Memorophilia (Asian Improv Records), Iyer stresses two themes: his affinity, as a person of color, to the African-American musical tradition, and the impact of karnatak, the classical music of southern India--specifically its complex yet soulful rhythms. You hear the latter perhaps most clearly on "Algebra," a solo piano track from Iyer's album, but it informs a great deal of his music, finding a common ground with the propulsive Africanized rhythms that Art Blakey and John Coltrane brought to jazz in the 50s and 60s. Iyer turned just 25 last weekend, but he already shows maturity with respect to technique, a fair amount of restraint as an improviser, and a willingness to dig more deeply than many musicians of his experience. These things--along with his ability to convincingly lead on jams that range from the catchily accessible to the fiercely atonal--make his album a delightfully strong document. Iyer attracted some impressive hired guns to play on Memorophilia, including trombonist George Lewis and alto saxist Steve Coleman, both former Chicagoans; the tracks with Coleman will likely serve as a model for this performance, which features local saxist Rudresh Mahanthappa, another 25-year-old Indian-American. Iyer appears on the last night of this weekend's inaugural Chicago Asian American Jazz Festival. The evening's program opens with Filipino bassist Eugene Jaceldo and the East Babylon Symphony--a ten-piece group from Austin, Texas--and closes with a trio led by Chicago-based Japanese-American bassist and festival organizer Tatsu Aoki. Sunday, 7 PM, Bop Shop, 1807 W. Division; 773-235-3232.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/David Pickell.

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