The Jazz Cover And The Vijay Iyer Trio

There are six covers on the forthcoming Vijay Iyer Trio album, Accelerando. You can hear them now; the album is currently streaming on our site in full via NPR Music’s First Listen series. (It will be released next Tuesday, March 13.) As a bit of a prelude, above lies the music video for “MmmHmm” by Flying Lotus, a song re-interpreted on Accelerando.

It feels odd to call these recordings “covers.” The jazz cover is so often an act of re-imagination, of annexing a song as a vehicle for personal statement. That’s different from the mimicry of Lynyrd Skynyrd night at the roadhouse with a local rock band. Indeed, on the liner notes for his previous trio album, Historicity, Iyer uses the term “versioning” (as in “doing a version of”) as a more suggestive descriptor. And, because creative adaptation is the idea, even the mere choice to cover a particular song can say a lot about how an improvising musician thinks.

There are also six covers on the previous Vijay Iyer Trio album, Historicity. It shows that Iyer is invested in the dances with ancestors and dance music of contemporaries that form so much of the African-American musical tradition. Upon closer examination, it might also say something about what he prioritizes within that tradition.

I’ve lined up his choices from one album to the next in loose analogues in an effort to identify some consistencies of thought. Here’s a track-by-track comparison, with links to YouTube samples where available:

  • “The Star of a Story” (Rod Temperton) : “Mystic Brew” (Ronnie Foster). Both are tunes from that point in the ’70s where funk, soul, jazz, disco, R&B and other black-origin popular music played in the same sandbox. Both were also written by keyboardists, a theme you’ll see a lot here; Foster played the organ and Temperton was in the band Heatwave, which performed “The Star of a Story.” Temperton would later write hits for Michael Jackson, which brings us to …
  • “Human Nature” (Porcaro/Bettis) : “Big Brother” (Stevie Wonder). A Michael Jackson cut vs. a Stevie Wonder tune. Both MJ and Stevie sit atop of the pop pantheon because of actual musical talent expressed on lasting source material. Again, keyboard players are at the wheel — Steve Porcaro played in the band Toto and Stevie Wonder is, well, Stevie Wonder.
  • “Wildflower” (Herbie Nichols) : “Smoke Stack” (Andrew Hill). From one highly individual jazz pianist-composer championed by Blue Note Records to another. No surprise that Vijay Iyer has also covered Thelonious Monk on his Solo album.
  • “MmmHmm” (Flying Lotus/Thundercat) : “Galang” (M.I.A. et al). Producer Flying Lotus has been pioneering new paradigms in electronic music today. M.I.A. and the people who co-produce her music generally fit this description, too. It would be silly to ignore M.I.A.’s other talents and transcultural borrowings, as it would be to ignore Flying Lotus’ virtuoso singing electric bassist, Thundercat.
  • “Little Pocket Size Demons” (Henry Threadgill) : “Dogon A.D.” (Julius Hemphill). Two metrically staggering, unconventionally scored, profoundly grooving epic jams. Both lead off landmark records (at least to those who have heard them) by alto saxophonists/flutists known as unconventionally brilliant composers. Have you noticed that Iyer seeks out those who really, truly freaked it differently?
  • “The Village of the Virgins” (Duke Ellington) : “Somewhere” (Leonard Bernstein). Both songs are scored for on-stage performers and pit orchestra: Ellington wrote “Village” for a ballet called The River, while Bernstein wrote “Somewhere” for the musical West Side Story. The two composers were also pianists, public figures and conductors of large ensembles based in New York City — both were called “maestro.” More importantly, both deeply realized the importance of the blues in American music to the point that their music routinely traversed category.

All this being said, a jazz musician’s own compositional vision is plenty revealing. And, having recorded five original tunes on Accelerando, Iyer is no slouch there. After all, this is a guy who has written for orchestra, big band, rappers, chamber ensembles, theater, dance, ESPN, solo piano and a number of small improvising bands.

But covers can also lend great insight into a musician’s milieu and outlook. Improvised music like jazz is abstract by definition; references to known quantities often provide incredibly valuable context. Recording a cover means learning (often transcribing and researching), arranging, rehearsing, performing, clearing publishing rights and deciding to make it publicly accessible. Those seem like time-consuming, conscious decisions made with great consideration.

At the very least, if you pursue the original recordings, you’ll come across some good music. Here’s a list of where you can find the originals on Accelerando

  • “The Star of a Story,” as performed by Heatwave, is from the 1978 album Central Heating. Here is a funny picture of the band.
  • “Human Nature” is on Michael Jackson’s Thriller, which came out in 1982. Thriller sold 1.27 million copies in 2009, the year Jackson died.
  • “Wildflower” was recorded by the Herbie Nichols Trio in 1956. The great Max Roach was on drums, Teddy Kotick on bass. The recording is available these days as part of the 3-CD set The Complete Blue Note Recordings.
  • “MmmHmm” is from the 2010 album Cosmogramma, by Flying Lotus (a.k.a. Steven Ellison). This particular track features the voice and bass of Thundercat (aka Stephen Bruner), who released a fine solo album last year.
  • “Little Pocket Size Demons” is on Henry Threadgill’s Too Much Sugar For A Dime, issued in 1993. The band here is Threadgill’s Very Very Circus, which is an apt name for an ensemble of that sound identity. This clip shows Very Very Circus live in concert — notice the two tubas, French horn, two guitars, two percussionists, trap drummer and Threadgill himself.
  • “The Village of the Virgins” is part of a collaboration between Duke Ellington and choreographer Alvin Ailey called The River. It was commissioned by the American Ballet Theatre in 1970. Neeme Jarvi and the Detroit Symphony Orchestra have recorded The River for Chandos Records.

… and Historicity:

  • “Somewhere” is part of the musical West Side Story, first staged in 1957. There are a few cast recordings available, and a 1961 film.
  • “Galang” is the first single from the pop star M.I.A., aka Maya Arulpragasam. It was first released in 2003, and later appeared on the album Arular.
  • “Smoke Stack” is from the Andrew Hill album of the same title (sometimes written as one word, Smokestack). It was recorded in late 1963 and released the next year. The original recording features two bassists, Richard Davis and Eddie Khan, and drummer Roy Haynes.
  • “Big Brother” is on the 1972 Stevie Wonder album Talking Book.
  • “Dogon A.D.” is from Julius Hemphill’s debut album, also called Dogon A.D. It was recorded in 1972 and reissued on CD last year.
  • “Mystic Brew” was recorded in 1972 by organist Ronnie Foster on the album Two Headed Freap. You can grab it on various compilations put out by Blue Note Records, including Droppin’ Science. And, of course, it was famously sampled by A Tribe Called Quest in “Electric Relaxation.”
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