This week sees the release of two other formidable albums by pianists: Vijay Iyer's Solo (ACT Music) and Danilo Pérez's Providencia (Mack Avenue).
The Panamanian-born Pérez — a Boston fixture, with simultaneous teaching gigs at Berklee and New England Conservatory (see sidebar) — has long been highly regarded for his rhythmic fluency. He's completely absorbed a pan-American vocabulary of folk forms and Afro-Latin rhythms as well as American bebop. He can dig into those rhythms with idiomatic specificity, as he did with his Panama Suite, or he can zero in on specific fusions, as he did with his classic PanaMonk. And whether he's with his regular trio mates — bassist Ben Street and drummer Adam Cruz — or serving as the linchpin of the Wayne Shorter Quartet, he plays with incomparable freedom, a kind of total fusion of all those internalized lexicons.
Providencia recalls Pérez's other suite-like albums (2000's Motherland was standout): ambitious writing and a wide orchestral palette sweeping out from his keyboard to include Street and Cruz plus more percussion and an unusual array of reeds and brass: oboe, bassoon, French horn. The music shows Pérez the composer at his cosmopolitan best, beginning with a portrait of the life of his daughter, "Daniela's Chronicles," a Bach-like fugue progressing through various layers of folk melody, modern dissonance, and childlike wonder. Several tunes, like the more abstract and funky "Galactica," feature the broad, biting alto saxophone of Indian-American Rudresh Mahanthappa. And through much of the album, Pérez uses the wordless vocals of soprano Sara Serpa in unison with horns or keyboard. As those grounded folk rhythms dig into the earth, Serpa extends the music's vertical scope to the upper reaches of the atmosphere. Beautiful — and accessible — as Pérez's fusions are, they're never easy. Their beauty is born as much of conflict as of resolution.
Iyer's trio album from 2009, Historicity (with bassist Stephan Crump and drummer Marcus Gilmore), was a year-end-list favorite, traversing M.I.A. ("Galang"), Leonard Bernstein ("Somewhere"), Stevie Wonder ("Big Brother"), Andrew Hill ("Smoke Stack"), and Julius Hemphill ("Dogon A.D."). Here was formal sprawl, motoric minimalism, and inward group meditation, all of it with a fresh, contemporary urgency.
On Solo, despite its free explorations, Iyer is even more focused. His rhythms and tonal centers might shift at will, and notes can stretch into silk-ribbon runs or bunch up in gravelly clusters — but with Iyer, freedom doesn't mean randomness. Notes are delivered with intent, and even at their longest, these pieces never feel verbose. They're as long as they need to be.
Once again, well-chosen covers and a handful of originals all feel of a piece: Ellington's early, theatrical "Black & Tan Fantasy" and later, lyrical "Fleurette Africaine," the standard "Darn That Dream," Steve Coleman's "Games," Michael Jackson's "Human Nature." Monk's "Epistrophy" is typical in a way, with the theme used as a rhythmic motive that drives the whole, and the melody making only glancing appearances. It's a halting, brooding performance, but more than once the syncopations, the feints and jabs in and out of the form, made me assent, "Unh!"