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REVIEW: Vijay Iyer, Linda May Han Oh, Tyshawn Sorey - Uneasy

Updated: Feb 13, 2022


Favorite Track: "Configurations" Least Favorite Track: "Entrustment"

The trio has long been one of the most idolized collectives across all genres of music. Groups like the Bee Gees, Destiny's Child, Run DMC, The Police, Beastie Boys , and Nirvana have all revolutionized their sounds and genres, proving that a three person band has limitless potential. Jazz is only one of the many genres that have been greatly impacted by the three person musical configuration, and perhaps one of the most heavily impacted as well. Across the community, trios have come in all sorts of instrumentations, such as saxophonist Joe Henderson, bassist Ron Carter, and drummer Al Green on the State of The Tenor volumes, or bassist Dave Holland, saxophonist Chris Potter, and tabla player Zakir Hussain on Good Hope. The piano trio is without a doubt among the most formidable. A gleaming example would be pianist Bill Evans, bassist Scott LeFaro, and drummer Paul Motian, who helped define the modern jazz trio sound on classics like Waltz for Debby and their Live at the Village Vanguard tapes. As jazz transitioned through its various subgenres, the piano trio sound began to modernize, as various pianists, bassists, and drummers began to explore further than their roles allowed. One of the most innovative pianists on the scene today is Vijay Iyer, who has been an important figure in the sound of modern jazz piano. Along with bassist Linda May Han Oh and drummer Tyshawn Sorey, they have released Uneasy, a piano trio album that unlike previous standard trios, pushes the boundaries on how much energy and intensity three rhythm section members can deliver.

This piano trio is unlike any other modern trio on the jazz scene today. Vijay Iyer’s polyrhythmic, well-versed vocabulary combined with Linda May Han Oh’s amazing bass technique and Tyshawn Sorey’s supportive, hyperaware touch on the drums conceives an incredible trio, whose attention to detail and sound crafts an amazing album to tackle the theme of uneasiness. “Configurations” is a composition that Iyer released on his 2001 record Panoptic Modes, which was played as a quartet. Twenty years later, the trio has re-released it on Uneasy, and in no way did it lose its original rhythmic ambition or monumental, avant-garde intensity. Iyer and Oh take very commendable solos on “Configurations,” showing how each individual member supports the other and pushes them to take their ideas to the next level. Sorey and Iyer then transition into a trading section, where they present each other with wildly energetic ideas. The transitions between each musician’s solo moment is flawless, never dropping a beat and never reverting in intensity. The outro sees Iyer repeating a melodic figure for the group to vamp on, and the way Sorey adds in after he briefly drops out is unbelievable, not only adding colorful textures with cymbals and toms, but actually copying the rhythm of Iyer’s melody in his drumming. The title track is another place where we see the trio’s magnificence. All three seemed to be tuned to one brain, as they accentuate every rhythm together, regardless of how big or small. This level of collective playing is achieved through years of playing together, and it obviously shows how in tune Iyer, Oh, and Sorey are to each other’s playing. Coming out of Iyer’s solo, he hits rhythms that Oh and Sorey quickly pick up on, anchoring them as the trio collectively improvises around the original melody and key, always landing together on some sort of offbeat hit.

The compositions on Uneasy are some of the most urgent and anguished pieces we’ve seen from a modern jazz piano trio. Through them, the trio highlights and expresses political, social, and health problems that face us today. The opener “Children of Flint” is an anxiety-ridden meditation on the lead contamination in the Flint, Michigan water supply that started back in 2014, which disproportionately affects black communities. Opening with a problem like this is a bold thing to do, as most would expect an album that’s goal is to present expressions on current issues facing the world today would open with compositions about the COVID-19 pandemic or the recent political unrest. If anything, it shows the trio's persistence in focusing on issues that have yet to be solved, like the Flint water crisis. The melody sounds anxious, with the collective swelling and receding to emulate the sound of deadly water flowing through unsanitary pipes, set out to poison and tear apart the very fabric of this community. The following track “Combat Breathing” is another piece that voices African-American struggle, dedicated to all who lost their lives to police violence and standing in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. Tyshawn Sorey implements a strong 11/8 backbeat, with Linda May Han Oh accentuating that pulse by plucking a strong bass pedal, all for Vijay Iyer to rip strong lines over. The greatest power felt from the piece is near the end, after Oh’s solo. The trio stays on a one-bar vamp, where Iyer takes a vicious solo and Oh and Sorey listen and play off of each other. It gives the listener the sensation of being trapped in a vortex, with each cycle growing more and more intense. In a way, it is similar to how African-Americans feel trapped in a constant, swirling state of fear and violence coinciding with police officers.

The crew also undertakes some arranging in Uneasy. “Night And Day” is a standard Cole Porter song that has been covered by Oscar Peterson, Kenny Garrett, and many others. Vijay Iyer’s trio seems to replicate it after Joe Henderson’s version off of his infamous Inner Urge album. He captures pianist McCoy Tyner’s quartal comping and use of space, and it pairs really well with Linda May Han Oh’s busy walking and Tyshawn Sorey’s percussive, highly rhythmic drumming. During solos, Iyer and Sorey trade 16 bars back and forth, and the outcome is a section that shows how well a drummer like Sorey compliments an intense and rhythmically complicated pianist like Iyer. “Drummer’s Song” was originally written by pianist Geri Allen, and the trio transcends the piece, both in a creative new way and as a homage to Allen’s incredible composing. The trio was somehow able to capture all of the instruments, which include soprano saxophone, trombone, trumpet, auxiliary percussion, and more, and replicate every sound using only three rhythm section instruments. This piece effectively showcases Vijay Iyer’s split-brain mentality, as he is able to play two completely different lines independently in each hand. At one point, he is playing the bass line with Linda May Han Oh, and the next, he is playing the repeating melodic figure in his left hand and the counter melody in his right hand, creating an astonishing polyrhythmic line that only gets more dense when listeners incorporate the bass figure below that. “Drummer’s Song” was also written without a definite solo section, and Oh’s solo specifically adds to the song's rhythmic complexity in an effective way. While “Touba” is an original composition, it definitely shows influence from spiritual jazz, with Alice Coltrane as the vessel. Whether it’s in the way that Vijay Iyer solos, or the way that the trio plays around on one chord for a given amount of time, this piece sounds like it would come from Coltrane’s cathartic 70’s post-bop era, where she focused on spirituality and gentleness. This piece essentially captures that essence, being a true ruminative look on jazz music’s momentous tonality.

As electrifying and driven a composer as Vijay Iyer is, choosing a bassist like Linda May Han Oh and a drummer like Tyshawn Sorey was really the best choice he could have made. All three of these players are renowned for their intuitive thinking, expansive listening, and an all in all initiative to transcend their music to a place of exploratory feeling. These attributes work well with the desire to express their standings on certain issues plaguing our world. After all, jazz music was created to capture real black thoughts, black sensations, and black struggle, and for jazz musicians today to continue to compose with that reasoning proves that this genre of music is more prominent than we may have originally thought.

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