“Thums Up” – Vijay Iyer
By John Day Barnett
“They used to call me curry – now they cook it in they kitchen.”
I had no expectation, idea, or inkling about what I was heading into when I walked to SF Jazz for the last show of Vijay Iyer’s residency. I knew that he is a professor at Harvard and produced the only jazz album on the top 50 albums of the year last year according to Rolling Stone. In college, I listened to Das Racist and enjoyed the lyrics of Himanshu Suri.
“Thums Up,” is an “experimental” group combining piano, song, rap, drums, and guitar according to the information about the event. Named after a soda prevalent in India (now owned by Coca-Cola), the beauty and ferocity surprised everyone in the audience.
Imagine sitting in a jazz auditorium, larger than a jazz club and smaller and brightly lit than a normal concert venue. On each side sit members – older, civilized, and with a penchant for good live music. Well-dressed, distinguished folks with tickets based on a MacArthur genius of a pianist ending a quick run in the Bay Area.
Out walks a trio: Rafiq Bhatia – a small man in an oversized plain sweatshirt with a powder blue guitar. Arooj Aftab – a Sufi poet with a smooth, enchanting voice. And Iyer – dashing in a blazer and scarf around his neck. What comes next is a blend of electronic, jazz, wailing, poetry, and moments of chaos all linked together by the common thread of a new style.
After a few songs, the ensemble changes to add a drummer (Kassa Overall) and previously mentioned Suri, a lyricist that sometimes makes you think, sometimes makes you laugh, and all the time makes you listen carefully for every word. Aggressive bars of rap pepper smooth riffs and harmonize with beautiful Suri lyrics.
How many times has f__k been said on the hallowed stage of SF Jazz? Political anger spouts off from the lips of Himanshu, echoing the sentiments of many parties from the anti-Trump crowd to the children of South Asian parents who were picked on growing up. Powerful, insightful words crash around a famous jazz pianist and a drummer with a machine that spouts sayings as he bashes it with his drum stick.
After leaving and seeing a poster advertising upcoming acts including a tribute to Leonard Bernstein and the famous Preservation Hall Jazz Band from New Orleans, I thought about what an amazing show it turned into after knowing nothing. The world of music can seem segregated – rarely do you have jazz mixed with rap and electronic experimental. Being in the audience for such an occasion, I realized how lucky I was and how amazing of an experience it was for everyone.
You can hear a recording from “Thums Up” last year HERE – the best way to experience this cultural and musical blend.
Here’s more on Vijay Iyer: