What piece of art changed your life? How did it affect you?
Verona Rag, a solo recording by Andrew Hill, and specifically the title track. How can one piano piece contain the universe? Somehow this one does. It is and is not a "rag" in the traditional sense; it has a traditional rag form, maddening repeats included, but it also spirals off at times---into fragments of other songs, into glacially paced anti-rag ruminations, into what seem like the recesses of human consciousness. It has glaring imperfections and yet also seems perfectly balanced. Its pulse careens, wobbles, and falters, but this results in a more accurate portrayal of human motion than any piano roll ever could capture. It pushes a quintessentially ragtime hemiola figure to an absurd extreme. It is simply a tour de force explosion of the idea of rag.
Hill constantly allows the two hands to slide slightly out of register, enhancing the polyphony while peeling the rhythm apart like an onion, revealing musical pulse to be a mere convenience, a collective fiction. There are times when Hill seems to be fooling with us, but then you turn a corner and glimpse certain mysteries of existence. He refracts one section about 2/3 of the way through, spinning these intoxicating lines across an insistently asymmetric sub-basement left hand, only to hit the last chord with deadpan simplicity each time.
The song ends suddenly, with a dash of elegance and humor, and it feels like the right time to make an exit. The listener has been put through the wringer. You are bewildered and have forgotten what life was like before the song started. But, as Wadada Leo Smith said in this clip from the film Eclipse:
"The artist is the consciousness of society, but the musician's role is very special. It's a way of making an example of the perfect state of being for the observer, causing, if it's successful, the observer to forget just for a moment that there is anywhere else existing except that moment that they're engaged in, and to eclipse everything that was happening to them before they began that process of being the observer, or being involved and engaged between art and music and listening, and to transform that life in just an instant, so that when they go back to the routine part of living, they carry with them a little bit of something else."
Tomorrow night's Vijay Iyer lecture/performance at the Mansion at Strathmore is sold out. That's not surprising, because Iyer plays some of the most creative, engaging music in jazz. Passionate and cerebral, the pianist fearlessly covers a lot of stylistic territory on his new disc, Accelerando. Besides original compositions, Iyer tackles pieces by Duke Ellington ("The Village of the Virgins") and Henry Threadgill ("Little Pocket Size Demons"), a pop chestnut ("Human Nature") by Michael Jackson, and even some Flying Lotus ("Mmmhmm"). It's a mighty man who can do that convincingly, which Iyer does. Next time he's around, get your tickets early.