Over the last decade, when he wasn’t busy becoming one of the world’s most talked-about jazz pianists, Vijay Iyer was also writing chamber music. Little of it has been widely heard, though that will change, now that Iyer has a home at ECM, a label that specializes in both fields. The big item on the Iyer’s imprint debut — framed by some piano miniatures — is the composer’s 10-movement string quartet-plus-piano suite, Mutations.
The piece covers a lot of ground. The opening movement, “Air,” opens with spectral string harmonies and gentle dissonances before quickly moving onto jaunty, post-minimalist figures that echo American fiddling. The overall sound of the piece changes quite quickly — it can sound blocky and serialist in one moment, and neo-Romantic the next — but it never seems a haphazard cut-and-paste exercise, either. There’s even room for the ensemble to perform some (bounded) improvisation.
Like his mentors Roscoe Mitchell and George Lewis, who also kept one foot in both improv and composition, Iyer writes for the ear, instead of for the academy. He can start out repeating a bit of musical information, then make it jig for a moment, before spreading one aspect of an arrangement out into a drone. Then he might put a layer of electronics on top, just for the new timbre. The electronics in “Vuln, Part 2″ engage some of the same rhythmic fascinations Iyer explores when he writes a jazz tune in honor of Detroit techno pioneer Robert Hood. Even as it helps us get a sense of the less talked-about side of Iyer’s career, this album can help fans of his jazz music understand that music better, too.