Album Remarks & Appraisals:
"It's hard to write about the collaborative trio Fieldwork. On their sophomore CD, Simulated Progress, pianist Vijay Iyer, altoist Steve Lehman, and drummer Elliot Humberto Kavee play a dazzling, intrepid sort of new jazz that's as deeply interactive as anything you're likely to hear this year. This is Lehman's first CD with the band (he takes the place of tenor player Aaron Stewart) and Kavee's last (his chair having been filled since this recording by Tyshawn Sorey), so Simulated Progress will have to suffice as the sole document of this version of Fieldwork.
If there must be only one album from this incarnation, so be it: it's above reproach. All three players contribute compositions, but this is music from a group mind; Fieldwork's very much conceived as a band, and many hours of rehearsal have produced an unwavering unity of sonic purpose and attack that is - well, hard to describe. It defies easy description because, while these are compositions that incorporate improvisation, the results don't fall into jazz precepts that facilitate facile definition. There are no ballads; nothing swings, at least in the conventional way that we regard as "swing. One musician doesn't comp over the solo of another.
Kavee's "Transgression is a case in point. One can remark upon Iyer's ominous piano ostinati or Lehman's dreamlike alto melodies, but there's something gnomically cryptic and elusive about the overall result. I've heard this song dozens of times and I'm still not altogether sure what it is, except that it's certainly good. There's an overall sense of determination to avoid prescribed, established musical roles and statements - no one's playing licks here.
Perhaps more accessible, at least to description, is the carnatic bombast of Iyer's "Headlong, with its push me-pull you of interlocking time signatures and epic Indian intervals, or the wrenching, mathematical avant-boogie of Iyer's "Telematic, where Kavee's drums evoke John Bonham on Led Zeppelin's "Trampled Under Foot (you've never heard this much kick drum on a jazz record before), Iyer's piano and Lehman's alto riding Kavee's thunder like determined charioteers pulled by strong but dangerous horses.
Iyer's "Transitions begins with Lehman's keening, reverb-enhanced alto, Iyer's hypnotic space ostinato and Kavee's chiming cymbals - very much Sun Ra Arkestra territory. The group then launches into a sideways, crablike tarantella that's as polyphonic as it is polyrhythmic, with Lehman (now on lacerating sopranino) and Iyer soloing simultaneously.
Stuff like this feels genuinely dangerous. Like three mountain climbers roped together, this trio traverses musical precipices that are real, immense, and perilous. Yet there's a restraint and control that make this in many ways the antithesis of free jazz, as evidenced on Lehman's "Trips, where Lehman plays as many simple, almost static phrases over Kavee's robotic, sonically altered snare and cymbals as he does his more flamboyant trademark skittering lines - he's serving the song and the music, not himself.
The greatest compliment that can be paid to Simulated Progress is that there is nothing else out there that sounds like it. This is difficult music. In its risk-taking, fragility, and fearlessness, it's also very thrilling." -AllAboutJazz
"Has anyone out there ever been totally flattened by a record from the first notes?
It happens that Pi Recordings was present at a Rudresh Mahanthappa show last week, and I was able to pick up a copy of Fieldworks' Simulated Progress, which I listened to on the way home. "Flattened" is definitely the word, and I felt chagrined that I could not get to the group's show (with a new drummer, Tyshawn Sorey) the next night. "Headlong" comes thrashing and snarling right out of the gate and sets the tone for the rest of the record. The music is dark and dense, almost brutal, and to listen to it is to be willingly (and perhaps joyously) flattened.
In Part 2 of Paul Olson's interview with Iyer, he discusses Fieldwork in general and Simulated Progress in specific. Much is made of the collaborative nature of the band, but a group of players working towards a singular sound is not really a new thing. Each member contributes compositions (one cannot call them tunes), but this is still Iyer's band. Each track expresses very much the same aesthetic, and the sound of the album as a whole is not the sum of differing parts, but that each track is a different take of the group's evolution, which I see as Iyer's evolution, to this point in time.
Fieldwork's first album, Your Life Flashes, with Aaron Stewart on sax instead of Steve Lehman, sounds quite different. Lehman, who is new to me, sounds very much at times like Mahanthappa does in Iyer's own band. Why this is I cannot say, and it is not meant to be a knock on Lehman. In any case, Your Life Flashes is an altogether more "normal" sounding album for a bass-less trio.
Given its predecessor, saying that Simulated Progress demonstrates the evolution of Iyer's vision of how a piano, sax, and drums trio can sound simply will not prepare any listener for what comes out of the speakers. Iyer comes across as a very intense and deep thinking individual and musician. The record has an aura of calculation mixed with extreme emotion. Iyer's left hand plays more than just bass lines, also chords and clusters that are supported by Kavee's kick drum to produce an almost bass-like sound. Kavee is on fire for most of the record, seemingly playing his whole kit while meshing with Iyer. Lehman's sax plays many roles, including supporting the bass line at times; on "Gaudi" he sounds like he is howling during a severe rainstorm.
Olson asks what is "Transgression," and all I can say is that Simulated Progress is very intense music that sounds like nothing else from Iyer, or anyone else for that matter, but which I found totally engrossing, and actually quite memorable, despite not knowing "what this music is." (As an aside, the words "carnatic music" sometimes come up when Iyer or Mahanthappa is discussed, but I have not seen a definition. It is the classical music of Southern India and one of the world's oldest and richest musical traditions. The basic form is a monophonic song with improvised variations. There are 72 basic scales on the octave, and a rich variety of melodic motion. Both melodic and rhythmic structures are varied and compelling. For more information, visit www.hbdirect.com)" -AllAboutJazz
"The melodic hooks are not obvious. The harmonies are not lush or comforting. And the rhythms won't be easy to tap along with. But Fieldwork's Simulated Progress is not a free-form blast of notes from three soloists playing near each other. Instead it is a result of careful listening to bring disparate elements together, with room for improvisation within focused forms that are not instantly apparent. Elliptical lines from the saxophone, out-of-phase piano, and skittering grooves are woven in elaborate designs by Steve Lehman, Vijay Iyer, and Elliot Humberto Kavee, respectively, incorporating their diverse backgrounds for greater collective results.
The stuttering but fleet rhythmic pulse of "Headlong finds Kavee supporting a twisting solo run by Iyer, who continues to punctuate the bass part that underlies and supports the piece. After some fire-breathing from Lehman, the tune abruptly cuts out and the plodding insistent piano of "Transgression offers the saxophonist a chance to revel in longer, fluttering lines. The pieces illuminate the fluidity between the roles of soloist and support, a hallmark for the group's emphasis on collective improvisation rather than soloing atop established changes.
The first set of day two of last month's stand at Jazz Gallery found Fieldwork - with new drummer Tyshawn Sorey - exploring the kinetic, with quick tempos and louder dynamic peaks, especially the drummer's explosive cymbal flurries and concise, powerful drum fills. Iyer seemed to orchestrate the proceedings, offering ominous piano lines to cover the low end, springing Lehman's reedy alto for some crafty counterpoint. The trio landed together in tighter ensemble passages, serving as effective contrast to their longer, oblique designs. Similarly, "Infogee Dub, from the recording, brought more texture to the concert, with Iyer tapping a bass line from the strings inside the piano and offering a repeating melodic motif of softer, higher piano notes, as Sorey reigned in his pyrotechnics for subdued ambience.
Though not all listeners may appreciate what Frank Zappa might call its "statistical density, Fieldwork has been a fertile project for these young artists to hone their craft and experiment with new approaches within a mutually supportive collective." -AllAboutJazz
Magnet (p.118) - "Lehman's sour-toned lines, Iyer's block chords and Kavee's skittering funk beats hang together with the structural integrity of an Alexander Calder mobile."
The Wire (p.58) - "[T]heir music is a graceful, yet sturdy sort of chamber jazz, consistently surprising and unique without pressing the issue."
JazzTimes (pp.63-64) - "Fieldwork's rhythmic logic can be immensely involved, but the results are disarmingly concise....Dark yet uplifting, intellectually demanding yet effortlessly funky."
Fieldwork: Steve Lehman (sopranino saxophone); Elliot Humberto Kavee, Vijay Iyer.
Personnel: Steve Lehman (soprano saxophone, alto saxophone); Vijay Iyer (piano); Elliot Humberto Kavee (drums).
Audio Mixer: Scott Harding.
Recording information: Systems Two Studios, Brooklyn, NY (09/16/2004).
Photographer: Dominik Huber.