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Pianist's playlist strays away from usual suspects

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Vijay Iyer is one of the best of the latest generation of jazz pianists, noted for his performance and compositional abilities.

As many musicians do, he plans his performances to include not only his own music, say from his trio's latest disc Accelerando, but some pop tunes and the works of other great composers.

It's just that Iyer's playlist includes more than the usual suspects. His shows are "carefully curated to celebrate these great composers -- saxophonist Henry Threadgill and pianists Andrew Hill, Robert Hood and Herbie Nichols. "They are jazz legends who should be celebrated," Iyer said in a telephone interview from New York City.

The Vijay Iyer Trio performs June 23 at the Winnipeg International Jazz Festival in two shows at Aqua Books, 8:30 p.m. and 10:30 p.m.

Accelerando is an example of that mix. Five of the 11 tunes are Iyer compositions, others include work by Nichols, Threadgill, Duke Ellington and Flying Lotus.

And Iyer performs Human Nature, from Michael Jackson's monumentally successful album Thriller but also a staple of Miles Davis's 1980s' bands.

Iyer is certainly not alone in adding newer material to the jazz canon. But it is a natural shift, he says: "We regard the Great American Songbook as standards now, but at the time they were pop songs from Broadway. The idea is not new. We're just dealing with what's around now."

Saxophone legend John "Coltrane was reaching into another world" when he chose My Favorite Things from the musical The Sound of Music and made it one of his signature tunes.

The piece by alto saxophonist Threadgill on Accelerando, Little Pocket Size Demons, "is not just a song, it is a vision of music... a vision for what music is," Iyer says. "That's what we're honouring; their tributes."

Playing the music of these composers is also a way to expand their audience by exposing listeners to the music. "Sometimes there are a lot of 'heads' in the audience who really recognize musicians like (pianist) Herbie Nichols, who was unsung in his lifetime," Iyer adds. "A lot of piano players know about him, but he doesn't get taught in jazz schools; you have to seek him out" even though he was recorded by the Blue Note label.

"(Yet) he wrote Lady Sings the Blues -- everyone knows that," Iyer says. There's a lot of remedial work to do to give those under-appreciated musicians their rightful place, he adds. "A lot of people have not checked out Duke Ellington!"

Repertoire aside, Iyer's shows are about what's possible with the dynamics of a trio.

"I like the trio format, a classic format," Iyer says. "I like the art of the rhythm section; it's not just about taking solos, it's about groove, texture and the feeling of the beat.

"That's one reason it's called a rhythm section. The music is produced by hand, by bodies in motion. The role of melody is distributed across the ensemble."

It's also about making use of the long-standing relationships with these people, the pianist says, keeping in mind the Winnipeg shows will see Iyer and bassist Stephan Crump joined by drummer Tyshawn Sorey, sitting in for Marcus Gilmore. While it won't be the same dynamic as with Gilmore on drums, Iyer and Sorey have played together and are familiar with each other's styles.

Winnipeg drummer Curtis Nowosad, who is attending the Banff International Workshop in Jazz and Creative Music, wrote of Sorey on Facebook: "Tyshawn Sorey is a force of nature. His class this morning opened my eyes to a whole new world of rhythm."

Iyer was director of the workshop for the first week and next year he takes over the role from trumpeter Dave Douglas, who has run it for 10 years.

The TD Winnipeg International Jazz Festival runs June 14-23 at various venues. The free opening weekend presents shows at Old Market Square June 14- -17 and concerts and club shows run June 18-23.

Tickets are available at, at the Jazz Winnipeg office or by phone at 989-4656. Tickets for Burton Cummings Theatre shows are also available at Ticketmaster.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 4, 2012 D3

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