Vijay Iyer
Vijay Iyer | Credit: Erbru Yildiz​​​​​​

With Vijay Iyer, categories-be-damned is an operative slogan, for he is perfectly at home blending, bending, and paraphrasing a bewildering variety of genres. On his latest release, Uneasy (ECM), though, he tries to distill the essences of a number of his compositions from over the last 20 years into a genre-specific, acoustic jazz piano trio format.

Iyer had spent part of the last decade jamming with the superb Malaysian/Australian bassist Linda May Han Oh, and 20 years performing with the protean drummer/composer Tyshawn Sorey, a sometime member of Iyer’s sextet. All three are established leaders — with Iyer and Sorey also being MacArthur Fellows now securely occupying positions in Ivy League universities — and get equal billing on the sleeve. They thrive on complex interplay — Vijay darting every which way in right-handed flights on the keyboard; Sorey energetically pursuing complicated polyrhythms on the ride cymbal, snare, and tom-toms; Oh interlacing the bass throughout the texture well beyond merely anchoring the pulse.

Vijay Iyer Trio - "Uneasy"

A theme tying these pieces together is the instability underneath the surface of American life — which is an easy fit for this cerebral, broiling, intensely interactive trio. A solo viola composition, “Song for Flint” — written for the victims of the poisoning of the water in Flint, Michigan — becomes “Children of Flint” here, a tense improv that begins quietly and reaches a brief peak of rage before subsiding. There is alternating turbulence and eye-of-the-hurricane calmness on “Combat Breathing,” which Iyer wrote for an early Black Lives Matter protest in 2014, and in “Configuration” which draws upon South Indian rhythmic influences.

The title track has a Spanish flamenco flavor that gets pretty wild as driven by Sorey’s muscular, volatile drumming. Sorey can be too overwhelming in a live concert situation — so my shattered eardrums found during the Iyer Sextet’s set at the 2017 Ojai Festival — but he is balanced properly on the recording so we can savor his mastery of polyrhythms within the context of the trio.

A haunting riff in the key of A minor that runs throughout “Plastic Bag” on Iyer’s In What Language? album with poet Mike Ladd becomes a strolling blues in G-sharp minor called “Touba.” “Augury” is an off-the-cuff Iyer solo piano rumination that was caught on tape after his two colleagues left the studio; it might have been better placed at the close of the album instead of as a central interlude.

Vijay Iyer Trio
Linda May Han Oh, Vijay Iyer, Tyshawn Sorey | Credit: Craig Marsden​​​​​

There are two cover tunes — one being a take on Cole Porter’s “Night and Day” based on a Joe Henderson/McCoy Tyner/Elvin Jones recording and intended as an homage to Tyner, who passed away in 2020. To his credit, Iyer doesn’t mimic McCoy’s often-imitated style in the least, nor does Sorey sound anything like Elvin; this treatment is more about intricate interplay with a different kind of turbulence. The other is a tribute to another recently-departed pianist, Geri Allen — her “Drummer’s Song.”

The Iyer/Oh/Sorey trio has such firepower that I wonder if ECM is thinking; here may be a domestic successor to the Keith Jarrett/Gary Peacock/Jack DeJohnette “Standards” Trio with which the label had a decades-long run. Assuming that the three can spare some time from their multipronged individual pursuits, why not?