Pianist and Composer Vijay Iyer and His Trio Deliver Emotive Sonic Riches and Much Aural Beauty on Their New 180g 2LP ECM Records Set, Compassion

His curriculum vitae is stunning. Among other things, he was named Downbeat’s Artist of the Year for several years running. Yet, for some reason, I haven’t crossed paths with his music nor even heard many folks buzzing about this gifted artist, pianist, composer, and educator by the name of Vijay Iyer.

Now, a good number of you know I am pretty active on social media, and while I know that algorithms are a fickle lot, you’d think I might have seen at least one post about this gifted American artist who was born in Albany, New York. My question, then, is a simple one: What gives, musical universe?

Fortunately, the good folks at ECM have me on their radar, and they sent a copy of Iyer’s latest album that was released on February 2, 2024 — Compassion, a trio project of his along with bassist Linda May Han Oh and drummer Tyshawn Sorey — to enlighten me. In short, it is absolutely beautiful. When I started researching all the details on Iyer’s background, all I could hear is the voice of a jazz radio DJ I once talked to on the phone who had shamed me by saying, “Where you been, man??” (More on that story in a bit.)


First, here is some background from the interwebs about Iyer to catch us all up together. Vijay Iyer is an American composer, pianist, bandleader, producer and writer based in New York City. The New York Times called him a “social conscience, multimedia collaborator, system builder, rhapsodist, historical thinker, and multicultural gateway.” Iyer received a 2013 MacArthur Fellowship, a Doris Duke Performing Artist Award, a United States Artists Fellowship, a Grammy nomination, and the Alpert Award in the Arts. As I alluded to earlier, he was voted Jazz Artist of the Year in Downbeat’s international critics’ polls in 2012, 2015, 2016, and 2018.

Vijay Iyer’s Compassion is, in some ways, a modern-day classic of the ECM Records form (if you will). This jazz-oriented music is richly ambient with loads of dynamics and musical diversity, from meditative to engaging to explosive. It is a beautifully recorded moody song cycle with a worldly flair to it, ranging from popular song styles to freeform improvisations. This music feels simultaneously fresh and familiar, rich, and with sonic detail one expects from the best ECM recordings. That special ECM feel is here.


Compassion was produced by Vijay Iyer and ECM founder Manfred Eicher, with engineering helmed by Ryan Streber. The album was recorded in 2022 at Oktovan Audio in Mount Vernon, New York, and the 180g 2LP set was manufactured in Germany (though it’s not further specified exactly where). The SRP for Compassion is $39.99, which feels very fair for a 2LP set of this caliber.

While we don’t know for sure if Compassion was recorded digitally or in the analog realm, a quick look at the official site for Oktovan Audio, the studio where it was recorded, reveals a wealth of tape-based recorders as their main focus. Notable brands like Ampex, Studer, Otari, Akai, and Tascam are in their house gear roster. Thus, and given ECM’s track record, it’s probably a safe bet to think this recording is likely analog — though, that said, if we get further direct confirmation either way, we will update our comments about that supposition accordingly.

An entry from Iyer’s own site offers more insight into the music: “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.” That site entry further notes that 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.”


Before I get into some deeper gushing about how much I am enjoying Compassion, I’d like to briefly circle back to a special moment of music discovery I had in the early 1990s via that story about the DJ I mentioned earlier. I was returning home from a party, listening to a San Francisco Bay Area jazz radio station (’member them?) along the way. A tune came on just as we were about to arrive home, one that was just jaw-drop stunning. It literally held me in my seat as I sat in the car in the driveway with the engine running, waiting for the nearly 9-minute tune to end and for the DJ to back-announce who was performing it. That moment never happened, so I rushed inside, found the number for the station, and called the DJ right away!

Amazingly enough, I got through and he answered the phone, explaining, “That was ‘Ode to Life,’ by Don Pullen!” I replied, “Don who?” He then enthused, while also gently mocking me, “Don Pullen!! Where you been, man??” (Sidenote: “Ode to Life” is on Pullen’s 1990 album on Blue Note, Random Thoughts. As far as I can tell, that album has unfortunately never appeared on vinyl, so hopefully the Blue Note brass will take note of that oversight sooner rather than later.)

After some pleasantries, I let the kind DJ return to his show, hanging up the phone with my musical tail tucked firmly between my legs. I was determined to find this recording and learn more about Pullen’s music in the process. I soon discovered Pullen’s many wonderful recordings, and also learned about his work with the likes of Charles Mingus, who I was starting to explore more deeply at that time as well — connecting the dots, as it were. So, when I was introduced to the music of Vijay Iyer recently, I had a flashback to that ’90s moment with the DJ chuckling at me, “Where you been, man??”

This is one of those moments where, if you haven’t been paying really close attention to a fairly specific music scene, you can easily miss out an artist like Iyer in a heartbeat. And, yeah, I can hear you in the back row, cawing at me like that DJ, “Where you been, man??” To that, all I can say is, mea culpa! But, hey, now I am here — and, I say, better late to the party than never!

And now, back to the 2LP set at hand! One has only to listen to Iyer’s lovely arrangement of Stevie Wonder’s aforementioned 1985 hit “Overjoyed” (Side 1, Track 3) — a song that was originally on Wonder’s In Square Circle album of the same year, on Tamla — to realize you are listening to a master of multiple forms of music.

Other Compassion tracks I’ve been digging include the appropriately titled “Maelstrom” (Side 2, Track 1) and the pulsing/building ascent of “Where I Am” (Side 3, Track 3). “Ghostrumental” (Side 4, Track 1) is another one that engaged me fully, as did its haunting sequel track, “It Goes” (Side 4, Track 2).


As for how the pressing quality for the 2LP vinyl edition of Compassion goes, it is exemplary, and it was made in Germany, probably at Optimal or Record Industry (though, as noted earlier, we don’t have concrete information about that specific plant locale as of yet). Both black 180g vinyl discs are perfectly well-centered and dead-quiet. The two LPs arrived packed securely in plastic-lined audiophile-grade inner sleeves, both safely housed in a classic two-pocket gatefold cover.

After immersing myself in much modern pop/rock music in recent weeks — a process that has admittedly been great in its own right, but which often forces one to explore new musical sounds that are at times compromised from an audiophile perspective — it is refreshing to hear this new music from Vijay Iyar on vinyl. The last music I got so deeply into along these lines was from Britain’s fabulous ambient jazz trio, Mammal Hands. But Iyer’s music here on Compassion seems perhaps even more lush, intricate, and compelling, and I have no problem giving him and his trio comparable ratings of 10 for the Music and 10 for the Sound.

These instrumentally based modern jazz compositions are intrinsically interesting, immediately enjoyable, and excellent sounding. I look forward to exploring the rest of Iyer’s back catalog in the near future, and I not-so-humbly suggest you begin your own journey with his music by picking up your own copy of Compassion today.

Mark Smotroff is an avid vinyl collector who has also worked in marketing communications for decades. He has reviewed music for AudiophileReview.com, among others, and you can see more of his impressive C.V. at LinkedIn.

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180g 2LP (ECM Records)

Side 1
1. Compassion
2. Arch
3. Overjoyed

Side 2
1. Maelstrom
2. Prelude: Orison
3. Tempest

Side 3
1. Panegyric
2. Nonaah
3. Where I Am

Side 4
1. Ghostrumental
2. It Goes
3. Free Spirits / Drummer’s Song


GaryS's picture

I too am late to the party but have been enjoying this release immensely. One question, however. Did you not find the bass to be excessively loud?