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Pianist-composer Vijay Iyer follows his acclaimed 2021 ECM disc Uneasy — the first to showcase his trio featuring bassist Linda May Han Oh and drummer Tyshawn Sorey — with Compassion, another creative leap in league with these two gifted partners. The New York Times captured the distinctive qualities of this group, pointing to the trio’s flair for playing “with a lithe range of motion and resplendent clarity… while stoking a kind of writhing internal tension. Crucial to that balance is their ability to connect with each other almost telepathically.” Compassion, Iyer’s eighth release as a leader for ECM, continues his drive to explore fresh territory while also referencing his forebears along the way, two of them long associated with the label. The album includes a powerful interpretation of Stevie Wonder’s “Overjoyed,” which Iyer selected as an indirect homage to the late Chick Corea. Another tip of the hat comes with “Nonaah,” a whirlwind of a piece by avant-garde sage Roscoe Mitchell, a key mentor for the pianist. Then there are Iyer’s own melodically alluring, rhythmically invigorating compositions, ranging from the pensive title track to the hook-laced highlights “Tempest” and “Ghostrumental.”

The New Yorker, in its review of Uneasy, described that album as “a triumph of small-group interchange and fertile invention. Iyer’s piano work, whether arrestingly skittish or clothed in powerful solemnity, resounds with a visceral intensity of purpose, and his resourceful compatriots respond in kind.” As with Uneasy, the trio recorded Compassion at Oktaven Audio in Mount Vernon just outside New York City, with the album produced by Iyer and ECM’s Manfred Eicher. The result is a sonic blend of warmth and impact, atmosphere and clarity — ideal for appreciating the propulsive interplay that has developed with this pianist, bassist and drummer. Although this is only the second album by the trio, the three musicians have been connected for longer.

Sorey, a native of Newark, New Jersey, has become one of the most esteemed artists of his generation in the realms of both composed and improvised music, as a leader and as a collaborator. Sorey was part of the quartet for Iyer’s 2003 album Blood Sutra; more recently, the drummer contributed to the ECM sessions for Iyer’s score to the 2013 film Radhe Radhe: Rites of Holi and he featured in the powerhouse sextet for the pianist’s 2017 ECM album Far From Over. The bassist Oh — who was born in Malaysia, raised in Australia and now teaches at the Berklee College of Music, in Boston — worked alongside Iyer and Sorey at Canada’s Banff International Workshop in Jazz and Creative Music. She has released six albums as a leader, along with playing with trumpeter Dave Douglas and Pat Metheny. Prior to Uneasy, the bassist recorded for ECM with pianist Florian Weber on his quartet disc Lucent Waters.

About his trio mates, Iyer says: “Tyshawn is a complete musician. He hears everything, understanding music as a composer as well as a player. Because of that, he can hear into the future — imagining possibilities before they come to be, making new things happen in the music. With Linda, she has this unfettered quality as a soloist, working as a melodic foil to me in a way that I usually experience with horn players. That said, she doesn’t solo so much at the top of the instrument like some bassists. She can solo in the bass register in a way that sings.” The album’s infectious version of “Free Spirits” — a John Stubblefield composition the pianist first heard via Mary Lou Williams — exemplifies the special rhythmic feel this trio can generate. “In that track,” Iyer explains, “we bring back a bit of Geri Allen’s ‘Drummer’s Song,’ which we had recorded in full on the previous record, and just groove. By the end, we all felt this surge of emotion — the rhythm itself created a space of joy and celebration.”

Several of Iyer’s compositions on Compassion reference admired figures (such as anti-apartheid icon Archbishop Desmond Tutu in “Arch”) and painful events (with “Tempest,” “Maelstrom” and “Panegyric,” written for an event memorializing victims of the Covid-19 pandemic). “Ghostrumental,” “Where I Am” and “It Goes” originated in music for the ensemble project Ghosts Everywhere I Go, inspired by Chicago poet Eve L. Ewing; the balladic “It Goes” originally accompanied verses that envisioned the life that Emmett Till — infamously murdered in a racist incident at age 14 in 1955, in Mississippi — “could have had as an elder among us, enjoying the ordinary life that should have been his.” And for “Prelude: Orison,” another touching piece, Iyer explains that he borrowed its theme from one of his earlier compositions, “For My Father,” dedicated to “the most compassionate man I have ever known.”

In his booklet essay, Iyer reflects further on that title of Compassion: “The unease I experience making art in times of suffering never goes away, nor should it; that tension shapes the creative process at every stage. Its counterpart, the response to its call, is the rejuvenating feeling of making music with, for and among people. I am endlessly inspired by Tyshawn and Linda… We developed this music on stage, out in the world, in spaces of community and encounter.”

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