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The Vijay Iyer Trio shares a resonant first hint of 'Compassion'

The Vijay Iyer Trio: Linda May Han Oh, Vijay Iyer, Tyshawn Sorey.
The Vijay Iyer Trio: Linda May Han Oh, Vijay Iyer, Tyshawn Sorey.

A couple of songs into the Vijay Iyer Trio’s performance at the Exit Zero Jazz Festival in Cape May, NJ, last month, someone in the crowd voiced a question: “What’s that called?” Iyer, who had just stood up from the piano bench to introduce the band, had to think for a moment before coming up with the proper title.

The tune was “Maelstrom,” an aptly named piece marked by hard-surging asymmetries — one of a few compositions that Iyer wrote to memorialize victims of the COVID-19 pandemic. The same new clutch of pieces yielded the following two songs in the set, “Panegyric” and “Tempest.” All three appear on Compassion, the forthcoming second studio album by the trio, due out on Feb. 2. ECM Records has just shared a video of the title track, filmed in the studio at Oktaven Audio, Mount Vernon, NY.

Opening with a purposeful rustle, as Tyshawn Sorey circles his brushes across cymbals and toms, the piece is an anthem of rippling composure. On bass, Linda May Han Oh articulates a clear tonal center but with swirling currents of rhythm. At the piano, Iyer is the architect of that ebb and flow. (All the same was true at Exit Zero, with one personnel change: Jeremy Dutton, a regular sub, capably filling in for Sorey.)

The Vijay Iyer Trio: Linda May Han Oh, Vijay Iyer, Tyshawn Sorey.
Linda May Han Oh, Vijay Iyer, Tyshawn Sorey.

The previous album by this trio, released in 2021, was titled Uneasy. In his liner notes for Compassion, Iyer connects both album titles to the state of the world: “The unease I experience making art in times of suffering never goes away, nor should it; that tension shapes the creative process at every stage. Its counterpart, the response to its call, is the rejuvenating feeling of making music with, for, and among people.”

Elsewhere in his notes, Iyer remembers his father, Y. Raghunathan, as “the most compassionate man I have ever known.” Last year saw the premiere of his piece “For My Father,” which pianist Sarah Rothenberg performed at The Menil Collection in Houston, as part of a DACAMERA recital. The opening section of that piece inspired a track on Compassion, “Prelude: Orison,” which ECM just released as a single.

Compassion features several additional Iyer originals, including some conceived for the Univ. of Chicago commission Ghosts Everywhere I Go, inspired by poet Eve L. Ewing. “Arch,” a circular meditation, is in tribute to the Archbishop Desmond Tutu. And there’s no less meaning in the small handful of interpretations on the album: a rattling version of “Nonaah,” by one of Iyer’s mentors, Roscoe Mitchell; a radiant take on “Overjoyed,” the Stevie Wonder song, partly inspired as well by Chick Corea; and a mashup of John Stubblefield’s “Free Spirits” and Geri Allen’s “Drummer’s Song.”

“We developed all of this music onstage, out in the world, in spaces of community and encounter,” writes Iyer. “I am no more qualified than anyone else to tell you anything new about compassion. But I hope that this word, placed alongside this music, offers us all a reminder, an assurance, a plea, and perhaps an inspiration to find each other in this together. Thank you for listening.”

The Vijay Iyer Trio’s Compassion will be released on ECM Records on Feb. 2.

Nate Chinen has been writing about music for more than 25 years. He spent a dozen of them working as a critic for The New York Times, and helmed a long-running column for JazzTimes. As Editorial Director at WRTI, he oversees a range of classical and jazz coverage, and contributes regularly to NPR.