The Vijay Iyer Trio set a remarkably high bar with their two prior studio releases, Historicity in 2009 and Accelerando in 2012, each one consensually rated among the top two or three releases of the year in jazz polls and magazines. Break Stuff lacks the cohesion of those predecessors — it is more of a catchall, mixing classic bop cover tunes, some of trio’s other signature influences (including Indian, techno and hip-hop), and segments from two recent Iyer projects. But in that sense it may be the perfect primer for those unfamiliar with an ensemble equally capable of being muscular and majestic and wry and wistful.
Iyer would argue that there is a unifying concept present; that the “break” in the title refers to the pivot taken when the formal elements have been addressed—”it’s the basis for breakdowns, break-beats and break dancing…it can be the moment when everything comes to life.” But after 11 years together, the trio has effectively blurred “breaks” and formality. The dense, woody bass of Stephan Crump and the roaming-then-incisive rhythmic patterns of drummer Marcus Gilmore provide an ideal backdrop (and occasional foreground) for Iyer’s capacious, cantering piano. Their songs are inevitably robust, yet still manage variously to marinate in contrast, chime out in celebration, limn together with mathematical precision, or simply exhale with melodramatic beauty.
The lilting, repetitious title track is taken from a suite of the same name commissioned by New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Three bird-related tunes — the somber “Starlings” and “Wrens,” which bookend the song list, and “Geese,” which opens with a grave bowed solo from Crump) — are from Iyer’s Open City collaboration with writer Teju Cole, originally performed with a larger ensemble. There is a tribute to minimalist techno producer and DJ Robert Hood, entitled “Hood,” a faithful rendition of Thelonious Monk’s “Work,” and slightly more wrinkled covers of Billy Strayhorn’s classic “Blood Count” and John Coltrane’s “Countdown.” There are sections of “Chorale” and “Diptych” that recall the exhilaration of Accelerando and there is an utterly surprising, extended detour into reggae at the close of “Taking Flight.” Good stuff, all around.