Vijay Iyer: 21st Century Jazzman

The prolific pianist isn't trying to change the world; he just doesn't want to be bored

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Vijay Iyer with Marcus Gilmore (l.) and Stephan Crump
By Jimmy Katz
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Vijay Iyer (r.) with Stephan Crump (l.) and Marcus Gilmore
By Jimmy Katz
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Vijay Iyer
By Jimmy Katz
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Fieldwork (l. to r.): Steve Lehman, Vijay Iyer and Tyshawn Sorey
By Scott Friedlander
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Vijay Iyer and Rudresh Mahanthappa, NYC, 2001

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In March, Vijay Iyer will release Accelerando, the follow-up to one of jazz’s most important piano trio recordings. But the album and band are only part of Iyer’s snowballing career—one in which the visceral constantly battles, and overtakes, the intellectual.

In musical terms, accelerando signifies a quickening of tempo, a gradual acceleration of pace. It’s an apt title for Vijay Iyer’s forthcoming CD, partly due to the intricate and challenging ways in which the pianist and his trio play with, explode and dissect time. But more important, it’s a dead-on descriptor of the velocity at which Iyer’s career has traveled of late.

The trio’s 2009 debut, Historicity, was met with a torrent of acclaim, garnering a Grammy nomination for Best Jazz Instrumental Album and reaching No. 2 in JazzTimes’ Critics’ Poll and the top spot on many another yearend list. And, crucially for a musician dedicated to a continual (and, yes, constantly accelerating) push forward into new territory, the album’s success positioned him at the forefront of a generation of jazz innovators steadily expanding the music’s horizons. But like many a game-changer before him, Iyer is interested less in the shock of the new than with simply speaking in his own unique voice. “It’s not that I’m trying to change the world,” Iyer says. “I just don’t want to be bored.”

Given the prolific pace at which Iyer has been creating throughout his career, boredom is hardly a significant threat. In just the two years since the release of Historicity, Iyer released his first solo venture as well as an album with the collaborative trio Tirtha. Accelerando, due out March 13 from ACT, is the end result of the extensive touring the trio, with bassist Stephan Crump and drummer Marcus Gilmore, has done in the interim. “In the last three years, I’ve probably had more gigs than I did in the entire previous decade,” Iyer says. “When you get to test drive ideas and refine the process of connecting with an audience, it really develops you as a performer and in terms of musical vision. We’ve shared so much time together now that there’s a sense of trust that whatever we try to do, we’ll make something happen.”

In its basic form, Accelerando follows much in the same vein as Historicity, split evenly between the pianist’s originals and a diverse and at times surprising collection of covers. Each piece serves as something of a mini-experiment in form or function: the lurching, asymmetric pulse of Heatwave’s “The Star of a Story”; the recursive rhythmic dismantling of Michael Jackson’s “Human Nature”; the daunting re-orchestration of pieces by Duke Ellington and Henry Threadgill; the tension-building acceleration of Iyer’s title tune.

The common link between all of this material, Iyer says, is dance. “This album is in the lineage of American creative music based on dance rhythms,” he writes in the liner notes; and while it’s difficult to imagine anyone taking a spin around the ballroom floor to the dizzying spirals of “Actions Speak,” the equally challenging “Accelerando” was originally written as part of a suite for choreographer Karole Armitage. Ellington’s “The Village of the Virgins” is part of a ballet written for Alvin Ailey, while “Human Nature” maintains its ability to set the body in motion even as Iyer and company are systematically deconstructing it.

Rhythm, Iyer explains, isdance, and is at the deepest root of all of his music. From the dance halls where the founders of bebop got their start to the traditional rhythms of India and Africa that he’s studied and absorbed into his own approach, Iyer forges his heady compositions from the basic elements that get people on their feet. “In these different rhythmic traditions around the world,” he says, “you see different approaches to that same basic science or craft or ritual of eliciting movement from bodies. That’s what rhythm is, so that’s what there is to learn from these things.”

His ventures into disparate genres, Iyer says, are not an attempt to show off his ability to transform obscure material or even to expand the jazz songbook. It’s simply an attempt to learn from the rhythmic innovations of others, regardless of culture, style or era. “Here’s this basic discovery about how the body responds to rhythm that’s a few hundred years old, and we can learn from it. Let’s work with it, build with it. Or here’s something that [experimental electronic music producer] Flying Lotus noticed about how the body responds to rhythm. Can you achieve the same sensibility in a chamber music context?”

According to saxophonist and composer Steve Lehman, a longtime compatriot in the collective trio Fieldwork, Iyer’s restless quest for inspiration includes not only compositions but also fellow musicians. “Vijay is really honest with himself about what he likes and what gets him excited about music,” Lehman says. “He builds relationships based on his own preoccupations as a musician and almost universally seems to have great instincts.”

As he admits, Iyer has been called, often disparagingly, a “mad scientist,” referring to his bachelor’s in math and physics from Yale and his master’s in physics from the University of California Berkeley, and implying a cold, mathematical bent to his complex compositions. It’s a similar accusation to those leveled at one of his chief influences, Thelonious Monk (though, granted, the emphasis there was on the “mad” while the emphasis in Iyer’s case shifts to “scientist”).

Bassist Stephan Crump, who has been performing with Iyer for more than a decade, first in his quartet and now in the trio, says that focusing on intellect in his music is missing the point. “When people focus on some of the mathematical underpinnings in Vijay’s music,” he says, “they lose sight of the fact that none of that would make any sense if there weren’t a real deep emotional core to the music. It really comes down to Vijay’s deep humanity.”

Iyer’s Ph.D., also from UC Berkeley, is actually in the field of music perception and cognition, with laboratory research directly in line with the research he’s now doing onstage and in the studio. He argued that the tempos found in music are analogous to those found in the human body: walking, breathing, talking, heartbeats. “There’s something fundamental and universal about rhythm that we should all be able to connect to,” he says. “It allows us to synchronize our actions, which is the foundation for civilization. So I think rhythm is why we have cities and why we have families.”

The other facet of Iyer’s background that is crucial to his approach but too often lazily caricatured is his ethnic heritage. A first-generation Indian-American, Iyer undoubtedly draws from that background in his work, though not to the extent it’s usually reported. Indian rhythms, like mathematical formulations, have undeniably made a deep impact on Iyer’s music; but given his expansive knowledge of tradition, his respect for those who have steered it into new directions, and a wide-ranging curiosity about approaches and cultures other than his own, reducing his sphere of influence to obvious biographical touchstones is reductionist at best.

In saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa, Iyer found a partner who shared similar notions of sonic exploration as well as a common set of experiences. Their 15-year musical relationship and close friendship has lent them the aura of a Bird/Dizzy or Brown/Roach of Indian-inflected jazz; this South Asian movement has grown to encompass a handful of other musicians, including Pakistani-born guitarist Rez Abbasi. Both Iyer and Mahanthappa appear on Abbasi’s latest album, Suno Suno (Enja), which employs their South Asian influences to explore the guitarist’s hybrid of jazz and Qawwali music. “I don’t see a separation between cultures within his or my music,” Abbasi says. “The music Vijay makes is directly related to his life; it’s not a fusion that begins from separation.”

Separation, however, was a very real part of his upbringing in America, according to Iyer. He cites a change in U.S. immigration law that granted visas to South Asians for the first time, leading to an unprecedented young generation of Indian-Americans. Born in 1971 to members of that first wave of new immigrants and raised in Rochester, N.Y., Iyer recalls a pervasive difference that he felt, exemplified by one bit of pop culture in particular: “There’s a moment that everybody in my generation remembers: the day that you were asked whether you ate chilled monkey brains, after Indiana Jones went to India and ate them in Temple of Doom. It’s a weird thing, but it’s the kind of thing that happens in America, for better or worse. Eventually for the better, but it takes working through.”

Having no role models for Indian-Americans in the arts, it took time for Iyer to see a pathway into jazz, though bonding with Mahanthappa provided the power of numbers. “It was a source of strength,” Iyer says of their shared background. “It always has been. It was also a source of inspiration in the very literal sense that the kinds of artistic choices we made over that decade and a half have been deeply inspired by and connected to that heritage.”

A string of albums teaming the two in various contexts followed from the mid-’90s through the 2000s, though busy schedules and competitive pressures have led to both more often now “working in parallel,” according to Iyer. Their collaborations these days most often take on the form that they began in: duo performances, as represented on their 2006 CD Raw Materials. They continue to find new surprises within that same repertoire, Mahanthappa says. “It’s actually been very interesting to do our own stuff and then come back together. We know this music inside and out, but I think both of us have an unspoken mandate to keep it fresh.”

Both hint at competitive pressures that have strained their personal and professional relationships, and neither is any longer a part of the other’s working ensembles. But as Mahanthappa explains, “We’re tied together at a root level. These things ebb and flow, but very few people can say that they have a musical relationship that runs as long and as deep.”

“The system rewards individuals,” Iyer says. “They don’t like teams. It happens in subtle ways, but there will always be forces that are invested in tearing you apart from one another. The idea of us competing against each other added this weird layer of complication, so if that means that we’re not touring together right now, I’d rather be his friend.”

Despite the influences that have pervaded his work with Mahanthappa, Iyer’s most direct connection with his Indian roots has been through the trio Tirtha, whose other two-thirds hail from the subcontinent itself. The music, written either by Iyer or guitarist Prasanna, delves into the very idea of diaspora, wending elusively between angular jazz, Indian tradition (the trio includes tabla player Nitin Mitta), and the slippery cultural transactions between East and West that evade easy categorization. “With those guys, it’s kind of like hanging out with my cousins in India,” Iyer says. “I’m American, they’re Indian. So there’s a difference there, but it’s a difference that’s not insurmountable.”

Iyer’s other collaborative trio, operating on the more cerebral end of the spectrum, is Fieldwork. The current incarnation, with Lehman and drummer Tyshawn Sorey, has evolved along with the compositional growth of its members since 2004. The trio, especially for Iyer, provides the most direct evidence of their ties to compositionally focused forebears in the AACM and new-music circles. “They’re both extremely innovative and fascinating composers,” Iyer says. “So if Tyshawn wants to write a 15-minute, through-composed, Feldman-esque duo for piano and alto saxophone, we’re going to work on it. And if Steve wants to write some spectralist opus, we’re going to do that. And I want to learn from it.”

Lehman in turn commends the richness of Iyer’s work, saying, “A lot of Vijay’s pieces are very densely packed in the sense that after playing them for a month, for a year, for several years, they keep on revealing new layers of information—new possibilities for ways that you can approach them as performers, and new ways that you can communicate the meaning of the piece to listeners.”

Iyer has found further outlets for his compositional ideas through commissions from classical ensembles like the ETHEL string quartet, Imani Winds and the Brentano String Quartet, which challenged him to complete an unfinished Mozart score. He’s also remixed tracks for British electronica producer Talvin Singh and composer Meredith Monk, and collaborated on a tune with offbeat rap group Das Racist. And he continues to collaborate with other jazz artists, including his membership in AACM great Wadada Leo Smith’s Golden Quartet and bassist Carlo De Rosa’s Cross-Fade quartet, which recently released the CD Brain Dance on Cuneiform.

Several of those interests continue to collide in his work with hip-hop producer/MC Mike Ladd; the duo has thus far yielded three performance pieces/recordings. Their latest collaboration, Holding It Down, was commissioned by Harlem Stage’s WaterWorks and first performed as a work-in-progress in 2010. The official premiere is slated for September 2012 at the Harlem Stage Gatehouse. Featuring poet and Iraq veteran Maurice Decaul, it deals with the dream narratives of young veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. “Part of the idea of this project is that these are the new blues narratives,” Iyer says. “We have this population among us of millions of people who are young and somewhat invisible. So part of our hope is to shine a light on these individuals who’ve been kind of forgotten.”

Still, Iyer, who was recently named director of The Banff Centre’s International Workshop, refuses to see himself as diverging drastically from the jazz tradition. “I like playing straight-ahead music,” Iyer says with a shrug, pointing to the acute-angled swing version of Herbie Nichols’ “Wildflower” on the new CD. “My biggest influence is that old stuff. So it’s not about trying to fuck shit up, but why can’t I at least strive to be as creative as somebody like Monk could be? He was both of the music and not of it, in the sense that he was offering something that really wasn’t there before, something radically different in the way that he ruptured the language of the music in a productive way.”

As he has in the past, while lauding Monk Iyer reveals more than a little about his own intentions. He speaks the language of jazz fluently, but his every interpretation serves to rupture and question that language in ways that force a new understanding. At the risk of falling back on those aforementioned trite characterizations, there’s undeniably a trace of the scientist’s analytical, methodical mind in Iyer’s probing musical dissections. But it’s the mind of an artist that reassembles that material in such illuminating ways.

Originally published in January/February 2012

1 Comment

  • Feb 11, 2012 at 04:28PM Russ Davis

    Mr. Brady...you have penned a brilliant piece that captured so much of the essence of what Vijay and his music (and IMHO what jazz of today) are all about. Thanks. I learned so much. When one gets both information and attitude from a piece you've just read, then the writer is a craftsman and you are that my friend. The fact that Vijay is one of the bright and shining voices in jazz is an established fact. Thanks for putting it all down in brilliant black and white.

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