February 27, 2019
Some 15 years after the release of his revelatory recording of Bach’s six solo cello suites and the subsequent tour that found him performing them in nightclubs, bars and other venues usually inhospitable to Baroque music, Matt Haimovitz decided to reinvestigate the works, with a twist.
For his 2015 album “J.S. Bach: The Cello Suites According to Anna Magdalena,” he commissioned a diverse roster of six composers to write companion pieces for the suites, which is how he and jazz pianist Vijay Iyer first started working together.
Since then, the relationship has evolved into a singular collaboration marked by an improvisational ethos and wide-ranging repertoire that fans can see live when Iyer and Haimovitz meet onstage for the fifth time Saturday, March 9, at Herbst Theatre. The concert is presented by San Francisco Performances, followed by two recitals next Sunday, March 10, at UC Davis’ Mondavi Center. They perform solo pieces and duo material that draws from their overlapping musical realms.
“Although we have different musical backgrounds, I know that each time I walk out onstage with Vijay I will experience a new way of listening and discover a musical language that, once discovered, seems inevitable and natural,” Haimovitz said.
Their evolving repertoire includes an arrangement of Duke Ellington’s “Fleurette Africaine,” a mysterious ballad from “Money Jungle,” the classic 1962 album encounter between Ellington, Charles Mingus and Max Roach. And Haimovitz transcribed alto saxophonist Johnny Hodges’ exquisite solo from the Ellington Orchestra’s 1967 recording introducing Billy Strayhorn’s deathbed masterpiece “Blood Count.”
“It’s a bit of a new venture, and we’re discovering what we can do together,” Iyer said in a phone interview shortly before the duo’s third performance. “Matt has an amazing ear and sound. It’s fun for both of us to step out of our comfort zone.”
If it seems like Iyer is everywhere these days, it’s not just because his ties to the Bay Area run deep (he pirouetted from a physics doctoral program at UC Berkeley to an interdisciplinary doctorate program in technology and the arts during his formative years on the Bay Area jazz scene in the 1990s). A professor of music at Harvard University, Iyer earned effusive praise for his 2017 stint as artistic director of the Ojai Music Festival and its Cal Performances spin-off Ojai at Berkeley.
He continues to embrace commissions and assignments from classical and contemporary music institutions while maintaining a vaunted reputation as an exploratory and multifarious jazz artist. Iyer notes that many of his commissions, like Haimovitz’s Bach cello project, involve responding to or elaborating on canonical works, a practice that he finds across musical traditions.
“I was playing these D’Angelo outtakes from the ‘Voodoo’ sessions for some of my students at Harvard, straight up covers of James Brown,” he said. “After doing the cover, they’d keep the groove going and let it evolve. That’s how they built the music. In my relationship to different classical artists, I’ve been asked to do this four or five times, like a piece for Jennifer Koh paired with the ‘Kreutzer Sonata,’ and ‘Radhe Radhe,’ which is a response to ‘The Rite of Spring.’ ”
On April 7, Cal Performances presents So Percussion at Hertz Hall with a program that includes the West Coast premiere of Iyer’s “Torque,” a work for two marimbas and two vibraphones initially inspired by another piece in the ensemble’s repertoire with similar instrumentation.
He is scheduled to return to the Mondavi Center on May 7 with his prodigious sextet, one of jazz’s most consistently inventive working bands. And on March 15, Iyer and Craig Taborn release “The Transitory Poems,” an album of a duo piano concert in Budapest featuring spontaneous composition.
“We build forms together onstage,” Iyer says. “Every concert is improvised beginning to end.”
Matt Haimovitz and Vijay Iyer: 7:30 p.m. Saturday, March 9. $45-$70. Herbst Theatre, 401 Van Ness Ave., S.F. 415-392-2545. http://www.sfperformances.org. 2 and 7 p.m. next Sunday, March 10. $10-$35. Mondavi Center’s Vanderhoef Studio Theatre, 1 Shields Ave., UC Davis. 530-754-2787. www.mondaviarts.org
BY: Andrew Gilbert
READ AT: Datebook – San Francisco Chronicle