After a weekend that featured guitarist Bill Frisell performing a soundtrack to a film by Bill Morrison and pianist Myra Melford performing with a Butoh dancer, the Angel City Jazz Festival closed on what initially appeared to be a more conventional musical collaboration.
Celebrated pianist Vijay Iyer joined his mentor, saxophonist Steve Coleman at Royce Hall in a set co-sponsored by Center for the Art of Performance at UCLA Sunday night. A forward-looking improviser and thinker who has influenced a generation of jazz artists, including fellow Angel City performer Ambrose Akinmusire, Coleman was the driving force behind M-Base, a loose musical collective during the ‘90s and an evolving school of creative thought whose effect continues to be heard in contemporary jazz.
By way of example, the beginning of the night featured Iyer with his trio, whose 2012 album, “Accelerando,” is one of the most striking, uniformly acclaimed records of the year. Just as the album functions as a head-bobbing celebration of the groove, Iyer’s opening set progressed on the nimble fulcrum of bassist Stephan Crump and drummer Marcus Gilmore.
Built out of a ticking, three-note pulse from Crump, “Lude” began the night with a shufflingly feathered beat from Gilmore, which sent Iyer into a variety of cyclical twists that gathered in force before sharply breaking down into its core rhythm. The title track from Iyer’s record began with a drum machine beat that sent the pianist into a series of chunky, cascading chords, as if he were trying to chase it off, only to have his rhythm section embrace and overcome the mechanized pulse with an off-kilter beat aided by some sinister bowed runs from Crump.
An anthemic reworking of “Star of the Story” by ‘70s funk group Heatwave was one of the most invitingly inventive moments of the night. Built out of a galloping melody from Iyer that continued to gather force, the song turned on Gilmore’s hitchy beat and Crump’s percolating bass, which broke down to a tinkling interlude before taking off with such drive that Iyer’s piano seemed to double in size.
The addition of Coleman shifted the group into a different neighborhood. The philosophy behind Coleman’s musical vision is difficult to capture in a few words, much less a few paragraphs, but with his knotty alto, the group turned more on constant movement than conventional repeated melody, rising out of odd-metered time signatures that felt almost like a cubist approach on composition.
Often leaning toward complex, cyclical funk in the rhythm, the melodies could be tough to parse as Iyer and Coleman came together and apart through compact, zigzagging runs, but it was often intriguing to puzzle out. One piece featured Gilmore swinging hard over melodic curlicues from Coleman while another rose out of a restless, seesawing structure that only in flashes settled into a groove. The elusive sound wasn’t quite the radical reinvention that made another Coleman -- Ornette -- such a polarizing figure some 50 years ago, but they were of similarly challenging spirit.
Fleshed out into a sextet with saxophonist Mark Shim and cornetist Graham Haynes, Iyer shifted to more immediately approachable ground as the frontline of horns traded solos on the sprawling “Far From Over.” In one of the night’s most fascinating pieces, Iyer led his band through a song dedicated to Detroit techno DJ Robert Hood. With Iyer shifting a flickering Fender Rhodes, the driving piece featured short, alternating horn melodies over a minimalist beat that gathered into a hypnotically intricate swell that briefly recalled Terry Riley’s “In C.”
The piece may have come from different generations, but the result sounded like the future. As the night sped on, there may have been no better way to sum up the efforts of this year’s Angel City Jazz Festival.