It took me five years to catch up to Vijay Iyer. In listening to his music previously, I appreciated his craft but I could never really follow the thread of what was happening. Last night's trio show at Gésu changed all that. Immensely captivating and transfixing, the two-hour show (including two encores) flew by. Much is often made of Vijay's intricate rhythmic language, but last night the math was present without being at the forefront of the music. Marcus Gilmore has a way of referencing a swinging ride pattern overtop of these rhythmic cycles. He has matured into a very fluid drummer, still armed with the laser precision of his playing on Re-Imagining. Vijay described Stephan Crump as "my secret weapon," and it was an apt description - from round, earthy pizzicato to various bowed explorations of the bass, he added a bit of a smooth finish to the trio. Vijay plays with an angularity steeped in the jazz tradition without ever resorting to stock blues phrases. Not enough mention is made of his touch at the piano and his dynamic range, coaxing intimate pianissimo from the instrument and gearing up to a full thundering roar. The hallmarks of Vijay's style were still there - the use of the low register of the piano, the wide-ranging chords, the constantly unravelling chromatic lines - but there was also a certain looseness, freedom and levity to the evening that I did not expect.
Much of the setlist was drawn from Historicity, and many of the tunes flowed into each other seamlessly. The opening hush of "Helix" led into the fractured swing of "Historicity." Iyer's recent arrangement of "Human Nature" (long live the King) moved from an insistent accompaniment to Gilmore's post-Dilla hip-hop shuffle. Julius Hemphill's "Dogon A.D.", with its almost march-like bassline, morphed into the high-octane "Cardio." The second half of the set was marked by the covers from Historicity - Crump's highly rooted walking anchoring the beginning of Bernstein's "Somewhere," delivered with a stunning sense of beauty. Andrew Hill's "Smoke Stack" bore witness to the constant truth and inspiration of the blues, with a magnificent Marcus Gilmore solo. The kaleidoscopic view of "Mystic Brew" grooved incredibly hard. To a well-deserved and loud standing ovation, the trio launched into "Galang" to kick off their first encore, followed by a hushed G minor near-lullaby, Vijay's runs reminiscent of vocal ornamentation. Gésu's lights switching to a deep red and then fading, it would have been the perfect, intimate coda to the evening, but the full house demanded more. For the second and final encore, they performed their abstraction of Stevie Wonder's "Big Brother," Gilmore locking into his mallet-groove in 7, bringing it down in volume but not intensity by playing it with his hands under Crump's solo. A high watermark of the 2010 festival in its first day.