It’s possible that, like me, you think there are already quite enough jazz piano trio albums in your collection. Think again. Uneasy, the new recording by Vijay Iyer, Linda May Han Oh and Tyshawn Sorey, demands attention.
The realignment of the piano-bass-drums hierarchy from “piano with rhythm accompaniment” to a full three-way conversation of equals has been going on for decades, and Uneasy is about as elevated as the format currently gets. Listen to the opener, “Children of Flint”, to appreciate the level of interaction between three musicians with virtuoso-level skills and giant imaginations. It sounds lyrical, even simple. But just concentrate on the astonishing touch displayed by each of the trio, whether on piano keys, bass strings, drums or cymbals, and the sense of three seamlessly interlocking and interdependent components.
As you work your way through the 10 tracks — eight compositions by Iyer, plus Geri Allen’s “Drummer’s Song” and Cole Porter’s “Night and Day” — you’ll also notice a complete absence of ego-projection. No one is showing off. On the sole standard, it’s easiest to hear how far Iyer can take the line of piano-playing founded by Bud Powell. Oh displays the deep sense of swing, nimble melodic imagination and beautiful sound of a 21st-century Paul Chambers. Sorey creates a momentum at once light but deep, exploiting a combination of technique and intellect that redefines the investigation of rhythm.
Recorded in a studio in Mount Vernon, NY three months before pandemic arrived, the album comes with a cover photograph of the Statue of Liberty seen through mist and against clouds. In his sleeve note, Iyer writes that Uneasy was originally the title of a collaborative piece with the choreographer Karole Armitage in 2011, exploring “the instabilities that we then sensed beneath the surface of things… the emerging anxiety within American life. A decade later, as systems teeter and crumble, the word feels like a brutal understatement.”
That heightened disquiet, however, remains implied. You’re not thinking about the end of the world. You’re remembering how even the darkest of times can’t extinguish such astonishing creativity. One of the records of the year, no doubt.
* Uneasy is on ECM Records. The photographs of (from top) Iyer, Oh and Sorey are from the CD’s booklet and were taken by Craig Marsden.