ALBUM REVIEW: Vijay Iyer and Craig Taborn’s The Transitory Poems

The Twin Towers of ECM piano jazz clash ivories on their first duo LP

Craig Taborn and Vijay Iyer

Artist: Vijay Iyer/Craig Taborn

Album: The Transitory Poems

Label: ECM

★★★ (3/5 stars)

Pianists Vijay Iyer and Craig Taborn aren’t just two of the most acclaimed, imaginative and just plain interesting musicians and composers in modern jazz. They’re also former bandmates as members of Art Ensemble of Chicago composer Roscoe Mitchell’s Note Factory, and longtime pals with a history of concerts together.

Powered by reverence for recently passed artistic geniuses, The Transitory Poems is the first record to capture one of those shows. Recorded at the Franz Liszt Academy of Music in Budapest, the record presents the two ivory-ticklers in an animated, improvisational conversation that, like each musician’s individual works, both challenges and beguiles the listener.

Often sounding like a demented Keith Jarrett with four hands, each man brings what makes him special to the keyboards – Iyer’s fleet-fingered lyricism, Taborn’s unusual note and chord choices – united by a shared love for balancing melody and dissonance. Drawing as much from modern classical music as from avant-garde jazz, “Life Line (Seven Tensions)” and “S.H.A.R.D.S” slam flurries of notes into each other like artfully sculpted tornadoes. “Shake Down” strips back the blinding runs for more contemplative movement, but remains off-kilter in a most seductive way. Dedicated to pianist Muhal Richard Abrams, “Clear Monolith” starts off minimalist (as much as you can get with two pianos, anyway) and slowly builds up to controlled chaos, maintaining a bluesy strut along the way. “Luminous Brew,” inspired by free jazz titan Cecil Taylor, explores that maverick’s introspective side as much as his frenzied one, taking advantage of the natural resonance of grand pianos to conjure ambient atmosphere as often as actual sound.

Vijay Iyer/Craig Taborn The Transitory Poems, ECM 2019

Rather than absorb residual energy from late musicians, “Sensorium” takes inspiration from visual art, specifically the work of Jack Whitten. It might be a stretch for most people to get the connection between the pianists’ spiraling lines and Whitten’s mixed medium collages, but the music compels attention regardless. Unsurprisingly, the album ends with its most ambitious and impressive track. “Meshwork/Libation/When Kabuay Dances” connects three pieces ranging from subtle to tumultuous, screaming to soulful, declamatory to hymn-like. Inspired by late jazz genius Geri Allen, the thirteen-minute suite brings every ounce of skill each man possesses to bear on a performance that runs the gamut of emotional experience, from joy to sorrow to anger to defiance. It’s not exaggeration to say that this vibrant artistic statement filters a multitude of life journeys through twenty fingers and two exceptionally creative minds.

Make no mistake – there’s a lot going on here. One hundred and seventy-six keys, instead of a mere eighty-eight, can take up a lot of aural space, so there’s a ton of musical information to take in. Like all seemingly difficult works, however, multiple encounters will lead to deeper appreciation and greater clarity. Individually, Iyer and Taborn have never shied away from challenging music fans. Presented with the opportunity to overwhelm, they choose instead to create a labyrinth of compositions that seem uninviting at first blush, but reveal themselves to contain an internal logic that becomes enticing, even accessible, as they unfold.


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Michael Toland

Michael Toland has been writing about music for various fan- and magazines since 1988, including Austin Chronicle, Blurt, The Big Takeover, Trouser Press Record Guide (online), Pop Culture Press, Amplifier, Sleazegrinder, Austin-American Statesman, Austinist, Austincitysearch, Goldmine, FHT Music Notes and, from 2001–2006, his own website, High Bias. As might be surmised by the number of times “Austin” appears in the above list, he lives in Austin, Texas.

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