Jazz records aren’t supposed to send you frantically hunting for deep cuts you’ve never heard of. The Bad Plus or Brad Mehldau never do that; they perform Rush’s “Tom Sawyer,” Bowie’s “Life on Mars,” any number of Radiohead tunes, or Nirvana’s “Lithium,” say. When I started listening to this album, I never expected to seek out an overlooked 1977 ballad by the Dayton, Ohio, funk band Heatwave, or the fifth single off of Thriller, or Duke Ellington’s 1970 ballet, “The River.” But that’s exactly what Vijay Iyer’s trio (Iyer on piano, Stephan Crump on bass and Marcus Gilmore on drums) had me do. Over their past two albums, they’ve been crate diggers, unearthing tunes that one wouldn’t normally associate with jazz and recontextualizing them. In fact, the core of this album is its covers — the five originals that frame the covers are wonderfully technical and dramatic, adding some context, shedding some light on the group’s thinking (overtly exploring the ideas of acceleration the title hints at), but they are ultimately supplemental.
Their choices of covers fall into two main catagories. First are the spacey, soulful vamps, which include the aforementioned Heatwave and Michael Jackson tracks (“The Star of the Story” and “Human Nature”), but also include Flying Lotus’s “Mmmhmm.” All three of these have simple, catchy melodies, interesting harmonies, active bass lines, and shifting rhythms, allowing plenty of space for the band to build. “The Star of the Story” and “Mmmhmm” only stray from the originals when they’ve been firmly established, but when they do, they show just how interconnected the members of the group are. Iyer is only one voice amongst many — much of the drive in these songs comes from Gilmore’s inventive rhythmic outlines, which point in lots of directions at the same time. And Crump is at his best when he picks up his bow, which he does at a critical moment of “The Star of the Story,” launching the song in a whole new direction. Their version of “Human Nature” spaces out ever further, though, starting with Iyer and Crump jamming on Quincy Jones’ bass-lines before jettisoning the soul-ballad feel and turning it into an extended funky jam.
The second set of covers come from the more prickly corners of jazz: “Wildflower” from a 1956 Herbie Nichols Trio album on Blue Note, and “Little Pocket Size Demons” from Henry Threadgill’s insane 1993 album Too Much Sugar for a Dime (the ensemble is Threadgill, two guitars, two tubas, French horn, and drums!). For these, the band is all about angles, corners and hiccoughs. Nichols built “Wildflower” on a bunch of unstable, fluttery piano runs with a boogie-woogie core. Iyer takes those runs and foregrounds them even further, untethering them from their harmonic underpinnings, and wandering wherever the lines take him. Threadgill’s melody in “Little Pocket Size Demons” is even more jagged and aggressive, stopping on dimes and leaping huge ranges seemingly at random. I don’t know how Iyer and Co. manage to not get overwhelmed in condensing the material, but they succeed, and once again, Crump’s bowed bass is critical to driving things even farther out. This is also, I would say, where Iyer really shines, playing a wonderfully crunchy solo that maintains a melodic core even as it dissolves into dissonant runs.
After the Threadgill and three originals, which ratchet up the tension even further, the band lets us down easy. “The Village of the Virgins” is a really unusual number; Ellington wrote it in 1970 for symphony orchestra as the accompaniment for a ballet by Alvin Ailey. Ellington himself never actually recorded it, as far as I can tell. It’s full of chunky chords and gospel-inspired melodies -- the perfect thing for the band to just sit and swing on. And Iyer just lets it rip, unleashing one majestic chord after another. He may not voice things like Ellington would have, but it doesn’t matter. It could never stop, as far as I’m concerned.