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DAVE DAVIES, host:

Only a few years ago, jazz piano trios that covered rock or hip-hop tunes were considered a novelty. These days it's common place. One example of the trend is the music of pianist Vijay Iyer's Trio.

But Jazz Critic Kevin Whitehead says that's just part of what they do.

(Soundbite of music, �Gowang�)

KEVIN WHITEHEAD: �Gowang� by MIA. It's one of several create of interpretations of other folks music on Vijay Iyer's new trio album, �Historicity.� In the last few years, some enterprising younger players have reinvented the piano, bass and drums jazz combo. It's not just that these trios play contemporary pop, it's a shift in attitude. Iyer's trio doesn't worry about swinging all the time, although the buoyancy of swing inflects their rhythms as much as hip-hop does. Some great pianists treat the instrument as a whispering Sylvan harp. But Iyer treats piano, or the piano trio, like a boombox - a rhythm machine.

On Stevie Wonder's �Big Brother,� Iyer reminds us jazz versions of radio pop are nothing new, sneaking in a quote from Ramsey Lewis' '60s hit �The In Crowd.�

(Soundbite of music, �The In Crowd�)

WHITEHEAD: �Historicity� includes some good Vijay Iyer tunes, including a couple of his own oldies. But they're trumped by his readings of fellow composer's stuff. One more way Iyer breaks with tradition or rather, reconnects to an older jazz tradition is by improvising from the melody more than a song's underlying chords. On Leonard Bernstein's �Somewhere,� Iyer uses limber touch and timing to surprise you just playing the melody. If that weren't enough, bassist Stephan Crump and drummer Marcus Gilmore ride two separate swing grooves.

(Soundbite of music, �Somewhere�)

WHITEHEAD: Vijay Iyer also covers a too-obscure jazz classic, the title track from one of the great un-reissued albums of the '70s, saxophonist Julius Hemphill's �Dogon A.D.� The trio reorchestrate the arid melody, but catch every rhythmic twist and hiccup in the original. Bassist Crump gets the bluesy groan of Hemphill cellist, Abdul Wadud.

(Soundbite of music, �Dogon A.D.�)

WHITEHEAD: What's so impressive about Vijay Iyer's trio isn't that they play venerable standards, forgotten jazz classics, or hip-hop inflected pop. It's that they hear all that as part of a single continuum, material equally adaptable to their methods. That's another way to say Historicity treats jazz like living music. It's still breathing.

DAVIES: Kevin Whitehead teaches at the University of Kansas, and he is a jazz columnist for emusic.com. He reviewed �Historicity,� from the Vijay Iyer Trio.

You can download Podcasts of our show on our Web site, freshair.npr.org. And you can follow us on Twitter at nprfreshair.

For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.

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