Trio 3 Plus Vijay Iyer

Trio 3 Plus Vijay Iyer: Oliver Lake (from left), Vijay Iyer, Reggie Workman and Andrew Cyrille.

There is no middle ground in the avant-garde. There is only uncharted territory.

The venerable Trio 3, along with special guest pianist Vijay Iyer, challenged Spoleto Festival jazz series listeners at the Gaillard Center to join a journey of mindful, experimental exploration into a rugged sonic terrain.

The quartet nonchalantly took the stage, facing a restless audience 20 minutes after their scheduled start time. After some fine-tuning, saxophonist Oliver Lake, bassist Reggie Workman and Andrew Cyrille on drums, along with Iyer, launched into a brash opener, exclaiming their intention for the evening’s program.

For the better part of an hour, and six tunes in, the ensemble would continue uninterrupted, stoic in its delivery. While each member was integral to the whole, it was 80-year-old Workman who held court as the unifier between the string of rhythmic ambiguity, melodic angularity, harmonic dissonance and improvisational nuance.

The first verbal utterance would come from Workman, with his gentle disposition, introducing “Willow Song,” from the group's acclaimed 2014 album “Wiring.” The composition was inspired by Shakespeare’s “Othello,” and very much sounded like Desdemona’s lament.

Cyrille’s “For Women Dancing” was a ceremonious Congolese drumming circle performed on a single drum kit, evoking the spirit of sacred movement. It was hypnotic and visceral, accented by Workman’s syncopated responses on hand percussion and by structural components of his bass. Ending with an abrupt ride cymbal stop, Cyrille was met with resounding applause.

The mood transitioned as Iyer took his turn on the microphone.

“We’re very mindful of where we are,” Iyer said, segueing into a moving performance of the ethereal “Adagio,” the third movement of his “Suite For Trayvon (and Thousands More).” The piece was written in response to the acquittal of George Zimmerman who fatally shot 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in 2012. Iyer thoughtfully dedicated this performance to the “thousands others,” referencing the nine people murdered at Emanuel A.M.E Church in 2015, just steps away from the concert venue.

By the end of the performance, the hall had lost about half its patrons. But these veteran musicians were unfazed by the mass exodus. Enigmatic and obtuse for many, this music is normal for these improvisational masters. The intense energy and mental space that this music commands requires a focused, discerning listener.

The faction who exited early missed what is at the heart of the Spoleto Festival’s mission: presenting artists of the highest caliber with a passion for contemporary innovation. Those who remained were transfixed, and enlightened by the high art of these musical pioneers.

Reviewer Leah Suarez is a Charleston-based musician.