Vijay Iyer and ECM Records: (Un)Easy Listening

Donald Trump’s infamous (infra)dig about ‘Kung Flu’, his racist name for the Covid-19 epidemic, was also indirectly a kick in the teeth for Asian-Americans, who have suffered the inevitable backlash caused by the jibe (whether Trump was bright enough to see the connection is open to debate, however). So it is nice to hear a towering performance by a trio ‘led’ by just one of these Asian-Americans, the pianist Vijay Iyer, on its latest recording, Uneasy, released on ECM Records, a label which has fairly recently (2019) celebrated its fiftieth birthday. The album cover, whilst in many ways being standard ECM, with its grey extended landscape, all clouds and cluster, with suggestions of fastnesses and vastnesses, also features, unusually, a specifically solid and iconic image, that of the Statue of Liberty, seen receding from the stern of a departing boat, with two spumes of spray in the  foreground. Or have I misjudged the photo, and the boat is in fact, entering into the New York waters? America as a ‘hostile environment’? Or perhaps as a lost opportunity? It’s unusually thought-provoking and ambiguous for an ECM product.

Most artists, of many and various persuasions, can become subsumed by the famous and much-discussed ‘ECM sound’ (Manfred Eicher is still present here, as co-producer, with Iyer himself), a factor which can be seen as both a boon and a potential curse for musicians who want to be heard as ‘individuals’, not as drones filtered through a ‘studio factory’. Happily, this is far from the case with Uneasy, and this is an album of mostly quiet triumphs, subtle escalations and unshowy virtuosity, delivered with an immaculate sound balance and ambience. Iyer’s fellow band members, bassist Linda May Han Oh and drummer Tyshawn Sorey, conduct a three way conversation, with absolutely no grandstanding from anyone. This was, of course, the sine qua non approach of the 1959-61 Bill Evans Trio, with further admixtures from Paul Bley’s harmonic ambiguities, Andrew Hill’s dark hues, McCoy Tyner’s peaks and troughs, and the frequently-commented-upon cap-doffing of Iyer’s trio to the flow of Bud Powell. The initial track, ‘Children of Flint’ (another example of American racial targeting?) encapsulates all the features, in miniature, of the whole album.

This is ECM 2692, reflecting that the label has put out at at least two and a half thousand albums since 1969. I started collecting the things when they were in their twenties, in 1973! (At a time when American masters such as Keith Jarrett, Chick Corea and Paul Bley were laying down some of their definitive recordings for the label.) The millennial achievements of this German imprint and, in particular, its relationship with American improvisers in the world of jazz music, remain a constant joy and form the basis of one of the greatest discographies in the history of the music.

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The banner picture is by the late Mal Dean (1941-1974), which featured on the cover of the 1972 Incus Records vinyl release, Live Performances at Verity's Place, by two free improvisation pioneers, the English guitarist Derek Bailey and Dutch percussionist Han Bennink.