During his '90s Bay Area residency, Iyer was equally at home manning the keys for the Oakland Bird Kage's legendary jazz jam, propelling the extemporaneous excursions of S.F.'s late, great hip hop group Midnight Voices, and studying computer music at Cal. Since moving to the Big Apple near the end of the decade, Iyer has distinguished himself with a touch that's forceful enough for Steve Coleman's Mystic Rhythm Society, yet light enough for Roscoe Mitchell's Note Factory. Grounded in classical and percussive schools of piano, Iyer transforms his keyboard into both a miniature orchestra and 88 tuned drums.
On Panoptic Modes -- Iyer's first recording as a leader in five years, as well as his New York debut -- the songs jump out with a well-drilled urgency. Deriving their sound not from Iyer's many influences but from the creative tension among them, the tracks refract in a rhythmic spectrum (on "Configurations") or sit light and sweetly in their own groove (on the affectionate tribute to Oakland drummer E.W. Wainwright, "Father Spirit").
Iyer's piano serves as a fulcrum throughout the album, tilting songs toward the musician who will take them in a certain direction. Often Iyer relies on his altoist, Rudresh Mahanthappa, who has worked with him in various combos since 1995. This familiarity gives each musician the ability to nestle inside the other's lines, pushing them out to a fervent stream of notes, as on "Atlantean Tropes."
Bay Area fans may remember tracks like "One Thousand and One" and "Trident: 2001" from Iyer's days as a local. By reworking material, Iyer uncovers deeper levels of meaning without ever losing the songs' foundations. Drummer Derrek Phillips is a great addition in this respect, grasping shifting meters and moving the group forward, adding fills that shine like solos. As critics in Jazz Times and Down Beat have noted, Panoptic Modes is the sign of Iyer and his combo growing into their own inexhaustible power.