Artist Spotlight: Vijay Iyer

The highly-acclaimed pianist holds a Ph.D. in music perception and cognition

Vijay Iyer - JazzTimes Readers and Critics Poll choice for Artist of the year (photo by Clynne Harty c/o ECM Records)
Vijay Iyer (photo: Clynne Harty c/o ECM Records)

Dubbed one of the “new stars of jazz” by U.S. News & World Report nearly 15 years ago, Vijay Iyer remains a singular talent—a forceful, rhythmically invigorating performer who weds a cutting-edge sensibility to a unique sense of compositional balance.

The son of Indian immigrants, Iyer was born and raised in upstate New York, where he started violin lessons at the age of three. Soon he was drawn to his sister’s piano, where he began picking out melodies at age six.

The Vijay Iyer Sextet performs the title track from the pianist’s 2017 album Far From Over.

Entirely self-taught as a pianist and composer, he was lured into jazz in his teens, performing original music with his own groups throughout college. His choice of a professional musical career came rather late, after he earned a master’s in physics at age 22. Then, as his musical accomplishments multiplied, he still managed to earn an interdisciplinary Ph.D. in music and cognitive science at UC Berkeley in 1998.

A forward-thinking composer, Iyer draws from African, Asian, and European musical lineages to create original music in the American creative tradition. His music is both emotionally expressive and structurally sophisticated, with improvisations anchored in cyclical rhythmic structures and ringing harmonies.

The Vijay Iyer Trio plays a 25-minute set for NPR’s Tiny Desk concert series in 2015.

Iyer has released 22 albums covering diverse terrain, most recently for the ECM label. The latest of those is Far From Over (2017), the first from the Vijay Iyer Sextet. The record was ranked #1 in US National Public Radio’s annual Jazz Critics’ Poll, surveying 157 critics. It was named among the best jazz albums of the year in the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Boston Globe, Slate, and the New York Times (as well as JazzTimes‘ top critics’ pick), and the only jazz release in Rolling Stone’s list of the 50 best records of 2017. Iyer’s Sextet was subsequently voted 2018 Jazz Group of the Year by the Jazz Journalists Association.

Iyer’s previous ECM releasees include A Cosmic Rhythm With Each Stroke (2016), a collaboration with Wadada Leo Smith, which the Los Angeles Times called “haunting, meditative and transportive”; Break Stuff (2015), with a coveted five-star rating in DownBeat, featuring the Vijay Iyer Trio, hailed by PopMatters as “the best band in jazz”; Mutations (2014), featuring Iyer’s music for piano, string quartet and electronics, which “extends and deepens his range… showing a delicate, shimmering, translucent side of his playing” (Chicago Tribune); and Radhe Radhe: Rites of Holi (2014), “his most challenging and impressive work, the scintillating score to a compelling film by Prashant Bhargava” (DownBeat), performed by International Contemporary Ensemble and released on DVD and BluRay.

Vijay Iyer improvises on Coltrane’s “Giant Steps” and discusses his approach to playing.

Iyer’s trio (Iyer, piano; Marcus Gilmore, drums; Stephan Crump, bass) made its name with three acclaimed and influential albums: Break Stuff (2015), Accelerando (2012), and Historicity (2009). Accelerando was voted #1 Jazz Album of the Year for 2012 in three separate critics’ polls surveying hundreds of critics worldwide—hosted by DownBeat, JazzTimes, and Rhapsody, respectively—and also was chosen as jazz album of the year by NPR, the Los Angeles Times, PopMatters, and Amazon.com. The Vijay Iyer Trio was named 2015 Jazz Group of the year in the DownBeat International Critics Poll.

For more from JazzTimes—

Vijay Iyer: 21st Century Jazzman

Inside Vijay Iyer’s Year-Long Met Residency

Vijay Iyer Trio: Break Stuff

Vijay Iyer: Othering

For more from around the Web—

Vijay-Iyer.com

Vijay Iyer, the Harvard Professor Changing Jazz – The New Yorker

Vijay Iyer Sextet review – pushes jazz into the future – The Guardian 

Once a physicist: Vijay Iyer – Institute of Physics