Vijay Iyer Sextet: Far From Over – Review

Note: This is the first in what I hope will be many album reviews I’m adding to the site. I listen to a lot of new music. I also have a lot of opinions on it. Time to write them down and share them.

When looking through pianist Vijay Iyer’s catalog, it’s difficult to know what to expect next. There have been collaborations with hip-hop artist Mike Ladd, avant-garde trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith, and string quartet Brooklyn Rider. On top of this we have his carnatic-infused trio on Tirtha and his more standard drums/bass/piano trio records. On Far From Here, Iyer introduces us to his new sextet.

In addition to a solid rhythm section of Tyshawn Sorey on drums and Stephan Crump on bass, we get three horns to round out the ensemble: Graham Haynes (cornet/flugelhorn), Steve Lehman (alto sax), and Mark Shim (tenor sax). This album manages to retain the freedom of Iyer’s best trio work despite having twice as many musicians to communicate with.

Often, we find tracks based in odd time signatures. Even when there is a more solid 4/4 structure, we still hear the groupings of twos and threes making up larger odd groups. With Iyer, we don’t get the incessant “Morse code” style tunes of never-ending short-short-long groups that too many musicians fall into. Instead, we hear the meter as a foundation for the music to flow across, creating phrases that weave in and out of each other smoothly and deliberately.

The opening track “Poles” begins with a quiet build that punches right into one of these such grooves on the horn entrance. The rhythmic interplay is immediately thrilling, and it’s very apparent that this group is playing for keeps. They continue this trend on the title track “Far From Over.”

After two full tracks of this kind of complex, and very enjoyable, rhythmic interplay, we get “Nope.” Iyer treats us to a Fender Rhodes opening while Sorey lays down a straight 2 and 4 rimshot. Seriously, it grooves hard. That groove lays the foundation for some very satisfying ensemble interplay. Instead of just one soloist blowing over some changes, the horn players engage in a real conversation that we thankfully get to listen in to.

A brief electronic foray complimented with forceful drum bursts on “End of the Tunnel” leads us to “Down to the Wire.” This tune begins with what I would consider a signature Vijay Iyer solo. Sweeping angular lines that are punctuated with unexpected leaps and turns. This creates interesting melodic shapes, and accenting of the leaps creates an internal rhythm to the longer line that keeps everything moving forward at a blistering pace. The wind players enter as an almost natural extension to what the rhythm section laid out. The tension builds to an all-out assault of raw energy.

Thankfully, things slow down for a minute. I definitely needed it. “For Amiri Baraka” is a contemplative ballad. Its harmony is voiced much more warmly and openly than some of the previous pieces and allows for a moment of reflection before Iyer and company hit it hard again.

“Into Action” does just that. This is another hard-grooving back beat style tune. During the main theme, you can pick any player in the ensemble and describe his playing as percussive. All of this creates a great bed for Haynes’ solo to float over. Haynes is again at the forefront at the beginning of “Wake.” Another contemplative piece that incorporates lots of space and electronic manipulation.

To finish the album, we get “Good on the Ground” and “Threnody.” The former pounds us with a relentless two against three polyrhythm while the latter offers a deep introspection as it  slowly builds in intensity and then retreats in its final statement.

Although this group is officially the Vijay Iyer Sextet, it is very much a group of equal parts. The ensemble is the soloist for most of the album. Quite often, there are moments where I am not 100% sure if a certain section is composed or improvised. That speaks to the quality of the musicians and the deep connection of their performance. This is an album with a lot happening all at once. It requires repeated listening to hear it all, and I am sure I will come back to this album again in the future.

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