Sometime during the early 1990s, I was walking past a theater run by a dance collective in the then ungentrified Mission District. I saw a notice that Vijay Iyer was performing that evening but did not go in because I was not sure if I was found of his style of music or not.
Rediscovering Vijay over the past few years, beginning with his free solo performance and talk at the Community Music Center on Capp Street in the Mission District, I regret that decision in hindsight. "You don't know what you've got until it's gone," Joni Mitchell sings, and, indeed, Iyer left thereafter for the wider musical opportunities in New York City. Leaving the Bay Area, where he had truly broadened his horizons by playing at Oakland jam sessions with the likes of Pharoah Sanders, he has risen to acclaim as his playing and compositions have come to international acclaim; the Jazz Journalists Association named him Musician of the Year in 2010.
But he has been returning, with the help of a residency with San Francisco Performances, to play in San Francisco. As he noted during his concert, "It is amazingly difficult to tour in the United States."
Genre embracing, his sound is hard to pidgeonhole. Friday he gave an early evening concert at the Community Music Center, and, this year, he was able to bring his trio to this informal setting, and bassist Stephan Crump and drummer Marcus Gilmore shined throughout. A lively question-and-answer session followed, during which Iyer meaningfully remarked that "every sound is a choice."
The next evening, he and his trio took the stage at the comparatively luxurious and plush Herbst Theater.
The first tune, "Accellerado," originally part of a suite composed for Armitage Gone! Dance, is the title track of his latest CD. It builds to a crescendo,with Gilmore fiery on the sticks.
Incorporating sampled music, "Heat Wave" has Crump bowing his bass.
"Carnival" is then followed by "something quiet." "Our Lives" incorporates thoughtful brushwork by Gilmore.
Iyer introduces Little Pocket Demons," a piece by master avant-garde composer Henry Threadgill by saying that "he told us how to play this piece."
Human Nature seems to be a strange choice for a cutting-edge jazz pianist until you hear it. Its lovely lyricism wins over even those who otherwise loathe Michael Jackson. Gilmore accents the piece with mallets, and a solo piced follows.
Towards the end of the set, Iyer explains the importance of the Bay Area to him. Not only did he get his graduate degree here and learned his chops here, he also met his wife here.
"Optimism" follows, and a standing ovation brings him back for Monk's "Darn That Dream" and Ellington's "Village of the Virgins."