The crowd coming to see ’90’s Bay local-motive Vijay Iyer on Sunday at SFJAZZ in San Francisco knew they were in for a ride. But any pre-conceived notion or expectation of where the train would take them, undoubtedly caused questioning of deeply held beliefs on how one perceives what it is to live in a diverse yet unscrupulous culture.
“I was looking at the program and thought to myself, well this is the day with the fewest Anglo names” Iyer observed minimizing his performances from nights previous, with BIG names on the docket. Virtuoso's like him. The weekend that Vijay put together was unprecedented, duo, trio, sextet...and Thums Up.
Vijay keeps it far from boring for himself. He procured a weekend of jazz, each night offering something different.
Thursday night Piano Duets featuring Craig Taborn and Kris Davis.
Friday, The Trio, featuring drummer Marcus Gilmore and bassist Stephan Crump (new release “Break Stuff”).
Saturday his Sextet: Iyer, Crump, Gilmore, Graham Haynes on cornet, Steve Lehman on alto saxophone and Mark Shim on tenor sax (“Far From Over”)
Each night equaled different elements, numerically and fundamentally.
Sunday’s performance was lyrically different. It was casual, relaxed, and brazen. A surprise for someone of Vijay Iyer’s stature. It was cool to see that as a professional, he doesn’t take himself so seriously.
Jazz is never ordinary, especially in Vijay Iyer convention.
Vijay introduced Sunday as “something off the beaten path for SFJAZZ.”
The Thums Up experience is unforgettable. Named after a knock-off Indian coke that was eventually bought-up by Coca Cola, Thums Up shows that Vijay has a fun loving yet HEAVY heart.
He is capturing quite the audience. Using his platform. On a mission to shake the convention of thinking that makes us believe we’re cultured, diverse, and open-minded. My tolerance of others was brought into question. I got to judge myself on my own racism; a unique opportunity instilling a bit of good fear. The kind of fear that instigates positive change.
It seems obvious that Vijay’s mind never completely turns off. You can watch him actively thinking on stage...developing his next production.
Thums Up begins with a couple of musicians Vijay knows from New York; guitarist Rhafiq Bhatia and vocalist Arooj Aftab. “Both of them are kinda legendary...if you’re under 30,” states Vijay.
Iyer’s voice is quiet and calm, with an underlying excited anticipation of what is about to happen. “Let's get the ball rolling.”
Arooj’s voice soars through the air with a mysterious tone, in perhaps Hindi tongue, longing to settle in the souls occupying seats at the venue. It's almost as if she was the siren, luring us to danger, encouraging us to let our guard down. She explains later: “Those are just - in case you are wondering - sweet words about love and melancholy and nostalgia. Vibes.”
The electric guitar creates sound that twinges nerves and pierces like sword jabs, creating crevice for message. Rhafiq Bhatia has played with Lorde and is pure emotion. At one point, he creates a spectrum of chaotic noise through full body spasms running the entire length of string with control and unwoven intent. It was incredible to witness live - like NOTHING I had ever seen before - Mind bending sounds through perplexing emotional display of guitar wringing. The journalist next to me had to pick my jaw up off the floor.
Iyer welcomes to stage drummer Kassa Overall and lyricist rapper Himanshu Suri;
“Other than that, I don’t know what to tell you. I hope you enjoy.”
Mathematician and doctor of physics, Vijay Iyers is a recognized pianist & composer who really pushes the boundaries of jazz with this one. Kassa is cool and all-in, making love to his drums. Himanshu Suri, formerly of Das Racist, incorporates heavy world issue through rapped word of experience - his experience - and he lets you know he speaks for no one else - yet he speaks for EVERYONE.
Iyers composes around it, looping sounds & versing between Steinway and Casio, sometimes both at once.
This intentionally unconventional form of expression derails thinking process; an underlying purpose to unwind hidden deep-rooted stereotyping harbored by those who may consider themselves ‘worldly’. We’re being unraveled by Vijay and his Thums UP, being cultured in a completely different way.
The experience of Himanshu Suri’s pain starts with water...drip, drip, conservation; eventually putting us through the heavy-duty wash cycle: he raps it out and repeats.
And then flag shopping...for an American flag.
“Why they lookin’ at us different?”
“How does my accent sound when I’m dyin’?”
The jazz sound is forming around this rap.
Inventive, ingenious, incentive.
“Cookie dough in the sugarcone.”
"Just to be like me.”
There are black & white projections behind the band displaying mind-bending imagery and messaging busting the pushed boundary. The brilliant artist who created them, Chiraag Bhakta of pardonmyhindi.com is in attendance. Home of the Brave. His work created specifically for the occasion and dramatically inline with the message. His artwork is super cool, those smart enough to snag a shirt walked away with some serious loot.
Arooj’s Sufi melancholic vibe rejoins later and networks the sound.
Vijay’s unique vast range of contemporary talents showcased in the most unpresumptive manner I could ever imagine for someone of his stature. Far from stuffy, this was a performance of the ages - for the ages. Vijay is inquisitive and intelligent, influential and unparalleled.
A performance like no other.
All Vijay Iyer photos credited to Ronald Davis