It's a sad fact of jazz that Miles Davis used the Michael Jackson mega-hit "Human Nature" as a concert staple during his last years. As such‚ one of the King of Pap's biggest pieces of… schmaltz is "officially" in the jazz lexicon‚ and pianist Vijay Iyer uses the Steve Porcaro composition to open his first trek into Keith Jarrett working-without-a-net territory‚ Solo. It makes you wonder if Iyer ever heard that slogan‚ "You never get a second chance to make a first impression." It could have been a train wreck; instead‚ it's a magic trick.
If memory serves‚ Davis played "Human" relatively straight (much to our horror‚ I might add.) Iyer's spare opening re-sets the piece's tone right out of the gate. It's still got some of the original's wistfulness‚ but there's a sense of hopelessness Jackson couldn't have produced even with Quincy Jones' talent for alchemy. The chorus "Tell 'em that it's human nature" goes from a smiling shrug to a sighing acknowledgement. Although Iyer ends the piece on a note of quiet hope‚ his middle-section improvisation throws bursts of anger at the slights and atrocities human beings seem to pull off without a second thought.
Although Iyer stays with the classics for the first part of Solo‚ he doesn't let the masters intimidate him. Instead of trying to fit himself into Thelonious Monk's signature coda "Epistrophy‚" Iyer makes Monk's tune fit into a swirling analog tape loop that's closer to Steve Reich than Slam Stewart. Iyer shoots Duke Ellington's "Black and Tan Fantasy" back to the New Orleans parlors where Jelly Roll Morton made his name‚ and then Iyer gives a respectful nod to Ellington's later‚ larger works with the pastoral "Fleurette Africane."
Thankfully‚ Iyer doesn't do the full Keith Jarrett‚ filling the middle of Solo with marvelously complex originals. If the Tea Party could understand jazz‚ the rage and resentment inherent in "Autoscopy" would force them to make it their theme song. "Desires" proves once again that wanting and getting are two separate things‚ and "Patterns" starts like raindrops on a pond‚ but meditation quickly becomes mind-racing.
In an age of mindless über-entertainment‚ Solo is the sublime sound of one man thinking (and‚ in some cases‚ re-thinking). That doesn't make it peaceful or simple‚ but you can chalk that up to… well‚ to human nature.
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