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June 25, 2010

UMS Staff Picks: Vijay Iyer Trio and Rudresh Mahanthappa’s Apex selected by Mark Jacobson, Programming Manager

By Stephanie Normann

Vijay Iyer

SN: This concert features a double bill of two jazz combos: the Vijay Iyer Trio and Rudresh Mahanthappa’s Apex. What can audience members expect to hear from these two ensembles? In what ways are they similar and different to each other?    

MJ: Great question, as I believe that one of the essential hallmarks that distinguishes the success of any double-bill concert concerns the relationship—musical or otherwise—between the two ensembles or artists being presented. Vijay and Rudresh have shared a significant and meaningful musical journey together over the last decade and have undoubtedly influenced each other’s body of work. They have proven to be two of the most prolific artists of the new millennium distilled from the tremendous New York City improvising community, each simultaneously leading and writing for multiple ensembles that explore their varying individual interests and intellectual pursuits, including fusing South Asian musical forms and harmony with Western jazz traditions, to genre-defying, multimedia and spoken-word projects that explore issues of ethnicity and cultural identity. 

Vijay’s long-standing trio has truly developed an original “sound,” mixing angular rhythms and challenging harmonies within an historical study and deep respect of popular and improvised music. Vijay’s ensemble has recently tackled musical “covers” of composers as diverse as Leonard Bernstein, visionary Andrew Hill, and pop sensation M.I.A.! Somehow, Vijay, Stephan, and Marcus have a collective ability to make this otherwise complex music accessible and enjoyable, and have been hitting on all strides. 

Rudresh and Bunky Green’s co-led Apex is a brand-new quintet that only recently had its NYC debut this spring. Because of this, I haven’t yet had the opportunity to hear this band live, so we will need to wait to hear how Rudresh and Bunky’s approach will differ from that of Vijay’s trio! Using Apex as a vehicle to finally call public attention and due respect to septuagenarian jazz pedagogue Bunky’s contributions to the art form, I’m anticipating on-stage fireworks between the two alto saxophonists fueled by young Damion Reid, one of today’s most exciting New York drummers. 

There is certainly a lot more to come from Rudresh and from Vijay, as both artists are still under the age of 40! 

SN: Have you heard either of these combos, or members of them, perform live before? 

MJ: I met Vijay and spent time with him when he was a guest of the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation and the NEA’s Jazz Initiative Annual Meeting of JazzNet partners in the summer of 2005 at the North Sea Jazz Festival in The Hague. Vijay is a musician that is equally comfortable communicating his artistic initiatives via both his live performances as well as through non-musical, verbal communication. The artistic goals of the trio are well-conceived and each member is whole-heartedly committed to the ensemble’s overall sound and style. Marcus Gilmore, who has been Vijay’s “first-call” drummer for a number of years, is actually legendary drummer Roy Haynes’ grandson! Marcus is not only one of the most skilled technicians on the drum kit, but his energy, fire, and natural “feel” make him someone to definitely watch…and hear. 

I met Rudresh at a similar meeting in New York City in the summer of 2007 and first heard him live in a quartet setting with Vijay Iyer at North Sea. I don’t mean to be superlative, but the first time I listened to Rudresh’s laser-like tone and fierce technique, thoughts of Coltrane came to mind. He plays with the spirituality and precision of the now-legendary saxophonists in jazz history.   

Mark Jacobson

On an interesting note, keyboardist Craig Taborn honed his chops while pursuing a liberal arts degree at the University of Michigan and living in Ann Arbor in the early-90s. I actually remember attending one of his gigs at the Michigan Union while I was a U-M student myself! 
Our southeastern Michigan audience should be in for a treat, as they will be one of the first to listen to Apex in concert.  


SN: What are you most looking forward to about this performance? 


MJ: As this concert will be presented in collaboration with the 2011 University of Michigan Jazz Combo Festival, I’m excited that so many young high school music students will have the opportunity to be exposed to “top-shelf” live improvisation. Great artists simultaneously assume tremendous responsibility and have the pleasure of being deeply influential to developing musicians—especially within the context of the jazz tradition. 


SN: What other events are on your “must see” list for the 10/11 season? 


MJ: My short list includes our UMS centennial celebration of gypsy guitarist Django Reinhardt by the Hot Clubs of Detroit and San Francisco ; Tony Award-winning songwriter and lyricist Stew’s band The Negro Problem, co-led with his partner Heidi Rodewald; the final opportunity to see the iconoclastic work of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company in Ann Arbor; and Fela Anikulapo Kuti collaborator and pioneer Tony Allen’s Afrobeat Tour direct from the man who “put the beat in Afrobeat” in April. 


SN: What do you enjoy doing outside of work? 


MJ: My wife and I had fraternal twins this past October (a girl and a boy!), so much of my time away from UMS is gladly being spent with them! Having children has, of course, opened my mind in so many wondrous ways. I have also managed to build a modest record collection (so much music is still only available on out-of-print LPs); I get a disproportionate amount of pleasure from discovering and listening to hard-to-find records or, for that matter, any music that is new to me. 


SN: What have you been listening to on your iPod? 


MJ: On heavier rotation recently has been a spring release on Warp Records by L.A.-based electronic artist Flying Lotus (born Steven Ellison) who is actually the late Alice Coltrane’s nephew! (I’ll forever remember working with Alice in one of her final concerts in September 2006 at Hill Auditorium….) I’ve also been enjoying Toronto-based Broken Social Scene’s ambitious Forgiveness Rock Record released on their own Arts & Crafts label. In the realm of improvisational music, I’ve been wowed by New York City-based alto saxophonist and composer Steve Lehman’s exploration (and realization!) of a “spectral harmonic” approach to ensemble writing and solo improvisation featured on Travail, Transformation, and Flow (Pi Recordings) by the Steve Lehman Octet. Truly astonishing. I’ve also been enjoying vocalist José James’ album with pianist/collaborator Jef Neve. In the world of large-scale, orchestral composition, I’ve been attempting to re-create the live experience of attending a semi-staged concert of composer Osvaldo Golijov’s magnum opus, La Pasión según San Marcos (The Passion according to St. Mark), at Lincoln Center’s Mostly Mozart Festival a couple of summers ago via a new recording of the work released on Deutsche Grammophon. 


We’d love to hear which jazz event you’re most looking forward to on the 10/11 season!


Stephanie is the Marketing Manager at UMS and has been with the organization for four seasons. She is also a member of the UMS Choral Union.