CAMBRIDGE — “My name’s Vijay Iyer, I play piano, and I. . .” — brief pause — “work here in town,” the natty musician said from the stage at the Regattabar on Friday evening, welcoming the audience to the first set of a two-night stand. That last detail seemed meant to acknowledge a sizable portion of the crowd that evidently had trooped up the road from Harvard, where Iyer is a professor in the music department.
Harvard is among the facts that have become de rigueur to cite in reporting on Iyer’s work. Others include his South Indian heritage, his formidable academic C.V., his burgeoning sideline in composing concert music, and his award of a MacArthur “genius grant” in 2013. Those points, salient and not, at times have been used to exile Iyer from whatever passes for a jazz mainstream.
It's true, on evidence provided during a capacious set, Iyer’s 11-year-old trio with the bassist Stephan Crump and the drummer Marcus Gilmore sounds not quite like any other working group, present or past. But equally important, Iyer and his mates honor a time-tested tradition and format, while extending it in ways that are fresh, coherent, and attuned to the here and now.
For many leaders who’ve arrived in the wake of 1960s free jazz and its ecstatic elimination of standard forms, inventing new structural strategies can be an abiding concern. Iyer has his favored methods: Tunes built up from tiny cells, repeated and varied; rhythmic vamps of gradually mounting intensity, which swell and shift, then recede or crash; a tight bond between piano and drums, the principal role shifting constantly, while the bass provides a fulcrum.
Those notions and more surfaced in the seamless sequence that opened Iyer’s set: “Geese” and “Chorale,” from the trio’s recent ECM Records debut, “Break Stuff”; a new tune titled “Combat Breathing”; and a tart Henry Threadgill piece, “Little Pocket Size Demons.” Telepathy can be a jazz critic’s favorite cliché, but this combo’s knack for nailing sudden transitions without visible or audible cues defied reason repeatedly.
After a brief interlude (“Nope”) came two more cuts from “Break Stuff,” a lanky rendition of Thelonious Monk’s “Work” and an original, “Hood.” The latter, a tribute to techno producer Robert Hood, initially feels static, stuck. Submit to its groove, and your focus intensifies; tiny shifts and deviations convey oversize impact.
Reworked portions of “Time, Place, Action,” which Iyer composed for the Brentano String Quartet, formed an impressionistic frame around “Down to the Wire,” a bristling new tune with a skittering Gilmore solo. “Wrens,” humble and songful as its title implies, provided the heady set with its gracious benediction.Steve Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @nightafternight.