Pianist Vijay Iyer and saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa, both American jazz musicians of South Asian Indian descent, have been performing together in different ensembles for a decade. Raw Materials, their latest effort for Savoy Jazz, finds them working in a duet format. The collective and individual aesthetics of the two players are shaped by both Indian raga and avant garde jazz, both of which serve them well in this pared-down context.
While the absence of bass and drums would seem on the face of things to free the players up rhythmically, it paradoxically forces them to be more responsible in their timekeeping, particular in Iyer's case. Though the opening "The Shape of Things" kind of floats in air, Iyer's chords opening space for Mahanthappa's Coltrane-ish musings, one of the surprising things about Raw Materials is how formful most of the compositions appear to be. Mahanathappa's "Five Fingers Make a Fist," for example, has a very well defined theme that is never completely abandoned no matter how abstract the going gets.
When not playing something atmospheric like the aforementioned "The Shape of Things" or on the Hancock & Shorter-esque. "Stronger Than Itself," Vijay Iyer often plays the keys with a percussive element. "...Fist" at once recalls J.P. Johnson and early Chick Corea, while in other places his broad strokes resemble McCoy Tyner with the Coltrane Quartet in full flight. The pair comes close to straight bebop on "Fly Higher," with its titular allusion to Randy Weston. Mahanthappa plays with a rich and thick tone, sometimes rapidly, sometimes more slowly and meditatively. His playing on "Rataplan" is interesting as it appears to fit the influences of Indian music and John Coltrane, particularly Coltrane's raga inspired playing, into kind of a feedback loop. He begins the closing track "Hope" with a nice Ayler-ian solo introduction.
The decade-long collaboration and sympathetic vision of Iyer and Mahanthappa results in an interplay that is seamless and deep. The music on Raw Materials is much more developed than the name seems to indicate. Though the pieces are fairly complex, the dialog invites the listener. A rich and rewarding date.