The latest album from pianist and composer Vijay Iyer, Break Stuff isn’t a statement about casual violence, but rather an exploration of space. “Break” here refers to breakdowns and break-beats, those moments when theme and variation drop away and anything can happen. The album also showcases Iyer’s ability to draw inspiration from far-flung sources and integrate them seamlessly. His long-running trio — with bassist Stephan Crump and drummer Marcus Gilmore — mixes jazz tradition with minimalism, Indian rhythms and electronic music to create a hybrid that still bears their stylistic stamp.
“Hood,” a tribute to Detroit techno producer Robert Hood, is steeped in repetitive, interlocking patterns. Although the tune seems slight at first, it builds stealthily to a dramatic and stirring crescendo. The trio chases that track with a swinging cover of Thelonious Monk’s “Work,” beautifully capturing the deeply odd character of Monk’s feints and pauses. Another highlight is a version of Billy Strayhorn’s “Blood Count,” which is so stark and restrained that listeners might envision the notes evaporating off the keyboard.
The interplay among Iyer, Crump and Gilmore is arresting throughout. Iyer often plays sparingly. On “Taking Flight,” for instance, his most compelling contribution is worrying a few perfectly placed notes, while the percolating rhythm section takes center stage. Crump and Gilmore aren’t flashy; however, careful listening will reveal their adventurous and unexpected performances.
Like many contemporary jazz albums, Break Stuff suffers from excessive length. Clocking in at 70 minutes, its potency would have increased with a few less tracks. Iyer’s “Starlings,” “Geese” and “Wrens” are spare and lovely tone poems that originated from his large-ensemble work Open City, inspired by Teju Cole’s acclaimed novel. However, they suggest the start of a different album, from a musician with no shortage of intriguing ideas. —Jeff Jackson