Vijay Iyer has carved out a unique path as an influential, prolific, shape-shifting presence in twenty-first-century music. A composer and pianist active across multiple musical communities, Iyer has created a consistently innovative, emotionally resonant body of work over the last twenty-five years, earning him a place as one of the leading music-makers of his generation.
He received a MacArthur Fellowship, a Doris Duke Performing Artist Award, a United States Artist Fellowship, a Grammy nomination, the Alpert Award in the Arts, and two German “Echo” awards, and was voted Downbeat Magazine’s Jazz Artist of the Year four times in the last decade. He has released twenty-four albums of his music, most recently UnEasy (ECM Records, 2021), a trio session with drummer Tyshawn Sorey and bassist Linda May Han Oh; The Transitory Poems (ECM, 2019), a live duo recording with pianist Craig Taborn; Far From Over (ECM, 2017) with the award-winning Vijay Iyer Sextet; and A Cosmic Rhythm with Each Stroke (ECM, 2016) a suite of duets with visionary composer-trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith.
A longtime New Yorker, Iyer lives in central Harlem with his wife and daughter. He teaches at Harvard University in the Department of Music and the Department of African and African American Studies. He is a Steinway artist.
(Photo Credit: Craig Marsden)
To listen to this album on headphones is to be air-dropped into a teeming megacity in 2017: industrial runoff, overgrown wild vegetation, human multitudes, handheld devices, improvised survival technologies, strange weather; bodies and machines in a necessary, dignified symbiosis.
Detuned arpeggiating retro-electro clouds hover above a Pixar horde of whirring, buzzing, clicking wind-up toys and thumb-distressed Gameboys. Everything is kind of off, in that Dilla way that has become de rigeur now. It’s that ecstatic deviance, so wrong it’s right, throbbing drunkenly in that airlock between the earbuds and your eardrums, brainfeeding you those torqued pulsations that throttle your tiny earbones and take a headlock to that inner part of you that keeps your balance. This is an aesthetic of woozy excess: music for time-travelers on a bender.
What we know about the much-beloved Steve Ellison (aka Flying Lotus) is that he works hard as hell, soundclouding us one mix after another, touring with live musicians, collaborating with every singer and every emcee, just way up there in the middle of it all. So then, this album could only have resulted from some severe curation; we must assume that everything is here by radical design, because it had to be here, instead of everything else that could have been here instead. These tracks are the keepers, the ones he saved for the album, the sounds that he is feeling, the joints that he road-tested and tweaked to perfection. (I suppose this is the new dichotomy of music distribution: there’s the music they give away like practice shots, or like free samples of crack, and then there are the choice cuts they hold over your heads, saying, you need this so bad you will even pay for it.)
Flying Lotus is easier to believe in than a person named Steve Ellison. Imagining these sounds were assembled by a singular, otherworldly force is easier than guessing what Ellison the man is thinking and why. What are his chosen dimensions of expression? What makes a given track the disheveled, gleaming breakthrough that it is? How does it come to be, out of all that he knows and has discovered? What are the decider’s decisions? I honestly don’t have a clue. Something about Ellison’s process is unknowable, and his music often just seems so wholly other, even when you can identify its ingredients.
Forty-year-old loops, dirty and warped, of synths, pianos and harps, commingle with a swarm of identical kick-drum samples, an attack of the clones. Those kicks combine in rhythms so obviously triggered by hand, you can feel the rubber wearing out on the MIDI pads; they’re kicks all right, but delivered by finger — they’re more like the blows delivered by a Nintendo character, each one visited upon his enemies via pushbutton; you find your own extremities twitching in some kind of gamer’s empathy. These lurching thuds are then side-chained to hazy ambient chords, jerkily squeezing their amplitude like a Velcroed blood pressure monitor choking your upper arm.
Many of the drum sounds are surprisingly organic — they bring you back to Prince’s log-drum knocks circa “New Position” — except now with that twitchy millennial gamer vibe, fingertips instead of sticks. There are a couple of synth bounce opuses with abundant handclaps, like Dam-Funk but concise. Sometimes the handclaps seem almost live, looped to within a micron of their humanity. On one of these jams the synth in question is dementedly detuned, like a cassette being played for the twelve hundredth time.
For all its textural complexity and staggered swagger, this music is heavy on the downbeats, the 1’s and 3’s. When I saw the man live last year, the shit was so loud that those massively impacted downbeats manifested as violently oscillating pockets of air. I felt pleasantly bludgeoned by about 106 dB of modulated air pressure, my future saved by a pair of earplugs someone had slipped me like a tab of E.
You’ll recognize the Brainfeeder cast of characters: Thundercat’s bass outpourings, Miguel Atwood-Ferguson’s string outpourings, Austin Peralta’s keyboard outpourings. Yes, these dudes like to outpour. But their notey tendencies have largely been beaten back, which we again must ascribe to Steve’s editorial ear. The players are stylized to comic book starkness, a police lineup of rogues in an aural Sin City. All the vocal cameos are clipped down to size too — you get little banzai versions of Badu, Darlington, Thom Yorke’s creepy ass, and this Niki Randa person — none allowed to overshadow the true decider here.
Still, the singers make their marks. “DMT” is a forthright Aquarian hymn in quintessential Thundercat style, some straight-up homestyle singing in harmony with occasional wild-out bass protuberances and a shroud of delay — or is it more like multiplication? In the headphones you realize those echoes aren’t echoes exactly, but rather some imperfectly overdubbed do-overs, more mutant clones banished to the margins of the stereo image. There’s that multitude again, Ellison’s flock.
“Hunger” featuring Niki Randa is just harrowing, like some Eli Roth flick I can’t bring myself to watch, full of harps, bass spills, typewriters, and goth girls. “Phantasm”’s Laura Darlington is less Roth-goth and more reverbed-out Wiccan mystery hippie; and by this time (“Phantasm”) you recognize the strategy: those chattering, whirring, skipping, gurgling, thrumming beats sounding like the sewing machine and dishwasher in the apartment next door, along with those kicks on the 1 and the 3, those burbling narco-electric pianos, that roving bass, those film noir strings.
What’s not to like? Well, about 28 minutes into this 45-minute headrush, you are treated to a minute or two of noodly LA jazz — jumpy modal electric bass, a ride cymbal tapped with some limp fusion swatches, and basically some deeply non-swinging swing — until the omniscient Lotus reverb iCloud descends to smother it, a mercy killing of some kind. This track is apparently called “Only If You Wanna,” and actually I’m good, thanks. Elsewhere there are earnest episodes of vague pan-diatonic keyboard babbling, which hit the ear as the work of an amateur, a non-keyboardist, maybe a jellyfish. But then all is forgiven when a clicky beat skulks in sideways, a furtive crab on the sand, prodded along by some wub-wubbing sub-bass.
The album’s closer, “Dream to Me,” finally gives you all of the signatures at once: the flams between kick and snare tilting the whole spectrum, the synth sweeps flooding the upper atmosphere, the vinyl distortion, the ornate twerks of electric bass, the running hi-hats, the 8-bit flourishes, the synthetic water sounds, the all-around trance vibe — this could be a FlyLo anthem, if you could make an anthem out of a feeling. The man has harnessed a generation’s ephemera and immortalized it somehow: a deluxe assortment of sensations for the end of time.
Flying Lotus continues at his impossible, hyperproductive pace, most recently dropping a killer mixtape wherein he raps as Captain Murphy. But one moment when he deigned to pause, and even contemplated canceling a show in Japan, was the night before Thanksgiving, when he tweeted news that stopped me in my tracks as well: the keyboardist Austin Peralta, mentioned above, had died at the age of 22.
A few years ago, Austin took a few lessons with me during his brief New York undergrad stint. I remember his effortlessness and subtlety of touch at the piano; the word “gifted” actually came to mind, as if I were witnessing that word made flesh. Moreover, he was already on a path that would bypass the involutions of the jazz industry. He told me he was about to leave school because he was working with Ellison and preparing to release an album on his new Brainfeeder label (2011’s rugged, ecstatic, if slightly inchoate, Endless Planets). He swiftly became an indispensable member of that omnipresent LA crew, appearing alongside Erykah Badu, Jaga Jazzist, Cinematic Orchestra, Taylor McFerrin, Octavius Womack, Teebs, Thundercat, Shafiq Husayn. The kid was a star — which is to say, he left a deep mark on the world in a short time.
Lotus and them went on to do that Japan gig that week anyway, in the spirit of abundance that is their very ethos. Indeed, may the outpourings never cease. So long, Austin. Thanks for sharing your gift.