Innovative beats take jazz combos to new heights

Kayana Szymczak for the Boston Globe
Vijay Iyer performed Friday at the Berklee Performance Center.

Two of jazz’s most exciting and innovative artists - pianist Vijay Iyer and alto saxophonist Miguel Zenón - brought their groups to town Friday night for a 2 1/2-hour roof raiser of a show.

The concert at Berklee Performance Center, presented by the Celebrity Series of Boston, illustrated that there are still so many places jazz can yet go.

Kayana Szymczak for the Boston Globe
Miguel Zenón (with bassist Hans Glawischnig, right) at Friday’s show.

The two sets had little in common. Zenón’s quartet focused on melody, harmonically pleasing improvisation, and swing rhythms. Iyer’s trio was more interested in creating textures that became grooves, many of which were built around one or two chords, fastened upon rhythms drawn from rock and hip-hop.


Both sets, however, underscored one fact: that an especially gifted drummer can take on the central role in a jazz combo and propel it to new heights.

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Zenón’s group - with pianist Luis Perdomo, bassist Hans Glawischnig, and drummer Henry Cole - went on first and stretched four songs out to an hour. The tunes all came from Zenón’s recent album, “Alma Adentro,’’ which marries jazz and Puerto Rican song.

“Silencio’’ began with the joyous sounds of a celebratory street party. Zenón blew sinewy but romantic lines over an insistent rhythm section, and he grew more fiery and intense as the minutes wore on. Zenón stepped in place constantly as he played, padding like a cat looking for a comfortable spot.

The group toyed with odd time signatures, too. “Silencio’’ was partly in 9/8, “Alma Adentro’’ in 10/8. If they were challenging, it didn’t show, particularly with Cole. He seemed to sink into the kit, or at least hide behind it, as he attacked in a controlled frenzy. Nevertheless he became the star of the set.

Iyer’s trio is still capitalizing on the seeds sown from its outstanding 2009 album, “Historicity,’’ even as the pianist has recorded with a few projects since then. Friday, the trio - with bassist Stephan Crump and drummer Marcus Gilmore - crafted tunes out of single notes; melodies and rhythms would come later.


Case in point: “The Star of a Story,’’ a cover of a forgotten song by the ’70s disco outfit Heatwave. Iyer banged out two chords, and Crump thumped a single note. Gilmore went clickity-clackity on the drums, and the overall effect was that of a base track for a rap song. As it built and built, the band - and audience - got lost inside the groove.

They did it again on “Hood,’’ but this time the aesthetic was acoustic jazz imitating electronica. But there were “serious jazz’’ moments too. Iyer chose his phrases carefully - opting for long runs followed by a measure or two of silence - on a take of Herbie Nichols’s off-kilter “Wildflower.’’

Gilmore’s unusual, restless performance came to the fore on “Actions Speak,’’ which was probably an excuse to let the drummer run wild. Iyer and Crump placed a chord and bass note every eight bars, to keep Gilmore anchored, and that gave him the freedom to tap out some absolutely ridiculous, time-defying breaks.

Steve Greenlee can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @SteveGreenlee.