Jazz on a Summer's Day
July 13, 2013
The setting was historic, on the grounds of a 12th century castle. The program tilted toward tomorrow, with an ear for the future. That picturesque, present day progression made the 29th Jazz on a Summer's Day a timeless musical present for devoted fans in this charming, well-represented burg of boppers.
The site was a gift for the eyes, and well-aligned for featured performer Vijay Iyer
and his doctoral views regarding the aesthetics of sensory transfer.
It isn't often that a stroll at a jazz concert includes crossing a moat on a renovated drawbridge, or seating areas are amidst medieval compounds, restored as part of a museum complex. Best of all, the primary cultural attraction, the music, was exemplary modern jazz.
Any one of the concert's three performing groups would have made for an exceptional show. As a trifecta, this was just about as solid a night of jazz as could be found and, considering the musicians' expertise and pedigree, one of the Rhineland's finest single venue bills of the year. With this region's tradition of excellent jazz promotions, that's considerable praise.
The engaging, New York-based Iyer has arrived as one of jazz's latest torch bearers. The pianist was one of the critics' darlings throughout 2012, gathering numerous awards to international praise. This year has seen similar accolades and an expanding consumer base for the widely credentialed, academically diverse composer.
For the hundreds in attendance, it was a chance to witness one of jazz's premiere practitioners in close and scenic proximity. Considering ticket and concession prices at many of the other venues or festivals on Iyer's current itinerary, Jazz on a Summer's Day was a bargain.
The event resembled a huge family picnic with great bands. Visitors strolled up to the modest stage throughout every set for non-intrusive close-ups. A few almost looked over Iyer's shoulder while he ran through intricate intervals.
Iyer has played many major venues during this leg of a European tour, but few could be more engaging for spectators than a castle courtyard. Where else could you sit on a stable bench, in your own horse stall among medieval farm relics, quaffing potent local brews with a good view of the stage? The open air sound was clear, amidst the thick surrounding structures.
With a regularly rotating series of recent global projects, today's modified compatriot trio consisted of seminal bassist Stephan Crump
and oft-situated drummer Tyshawn Sorey
. "He's an honorary trio member, we've done so many projects together," said Iyer.
Iyer introduced them as "dear friends," and they played like it, with apparent kinship and joy.
Initially, judging from body language and unsubtle mumbling, it took a while for the entire audience to perceive Iyer's vision. Then, by the second half of the set, it looked like the polite gathering had been hypnotized and converted, proverbially signed and sealed.
It was a chance for the multidimensional Iyer, with published research on listener interaction, to minimize the distance between artist and audience. The trio presented familiar songs with interesting variations, and some graduate school moments as Iyer mused on literary asides and tidbits of music theory in relation to popular culture.
"It feels like you're so far away," Iyer told the comfortable crowd, who remained in the late sunset shade of a large tent, fifteen yards back from the stage structure. "I can't see you but I know you're out there. That's going to be our theme."
A few footnotes and a deeper mathematical understanding might have helped decipher some of the band's complex patterns. A 2007 All About Jazz Megaphone article
, written by Iyer, referred to aiming at tonal targets "not just different, but shocking...at maximum creative risk."
Iyer demonstrated masterful practice of what he was preaching. Many equations became clear through progression, but some scattered intricacies sounded too mechanical or lacked either swing or zing.
There's a stale concert formula for giving the people exactly what they expect, or at least what they think they want. It was refreshing to watch Iyer challenge his audience, something from which many managers might fully dissuade an emerging headliner.
Challenging perimeters made the show exceptional, but it didn't mean everyone fully appreciated it, or that there weren't some lapses. More than a few spectators packed up their picnic baskets and headed for the stone arch exit during the band's opening selections.
It was a long humid day, but it also appeared that the audience preferred a more straight-ahead approach than songs like "Break Stuff," based on hip-hop literature, or "Hood," after techno producer Robert Hood. Iyer's percussive interpretation of electronic format there was impressive, but not the most accessible piece.