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Vijay Iyer: Othering

Vijay Iyer
Vijay Iyer
Vijay Iyer
Vijay Iyer
Vijay Iyer

For four days in late-January 2004, the annual conference of the International Association of Jazz Educators subsumed a swatch of midtown Manhattan. One of the week’s events was a reception in a cavernous Sheraton ballroom, at which I bumped into Vijay Iyer. The pianist and composer had just wrapped a remarkable year, in which he’d released two ambitious albums, received a prestigious arts fellowship and reaped a cavalcade of praise. Iyer had been tapped as a panelist at IAJE not for one but a handful of topics-including jazz and hip-hop, jazz and Indian music and “Racial Considerations in Jazz Journalism.” This was probably the most panel duty of anyone at the conference, and certainly more than any other musician. But when I mentioned it, Iyer shook his head. “I just hope I don’t get myself in trouble,” he said, as a splendiferous Roy Haynes stocked up on hors d’oeuvres nearby.

I had forgotten this exchange until recently, when I reexamined the peculiar position Iyer inhabits in the realm of jazz. A distinctive pianist and intensely creative composer, he has been lauded not only by the usual sources but also such jazz-averse publications as U.S. News and World Report. Still, it’s unlikely that many at IAJE had ever heard his music. Those who had were likely to subject it to categorization-as evidenced by the well-intentioned urge to uphold Iyer as a spokesman for “jazz and hip-hop,” or “jazz and Indian music,” or “jazz and racial considerations.” This is the pigeonholing that keeps Iyer at arm’s length from the jazz tradition, despite his own intentions and experience. The irony is that his work preempts such perceptions.

“With Mutations, and with all of my music, I am interested in probing this loose constellation of concepts: change, stasis, repetition, evolution, attraction, repulsion, composition, improvisation, noise, technology, race, ethnicity, hybridity.”

-Vijay Iyer, program notes, January 2005

Skip ahead a year. An impressive array of jazz professionals-musicians, producers and record-label folk-have gathered at New York’s Merkin Concert Hall, one block north of Lincoln Center, for an evening of Iyer’s compositions.

Iyer crosses the stage in a dark suit and open-collared shirt, and takes his station at the hall’s gleaming Steinway. But the first keys his fingers touch are those of an Apple iBook, which occupies a small adjacent table amid a sprig of cords. The sound that ensues is an elliptical percussive thrum, like an uneven heartbeat amplified. Iyer lets the pattern swell for a moment, and then turns to the piano, applying lacquered dissonances in careful layers. Over the next few minutes, he improvises fluidly over the laptop’s litany of cricketlike twitters, metallic screeches and broken beats. This is “Ghost Time,” the first of the night’s two world premieres.

For the second premiere, the modern string quartet Ethel joins Iyer and his iBook. They launch into Mutations-a suite in 10 movements, encompassing a wide palette of timbres and asymmetrical rhythms. Iyer divides his attention between piano and laptop, the latter triggering prerecorded samples of Ethel. The string players themselves are furiously focused on their sheet music, which from a distance appears spattered with impenetrable code. But the suite contains melodic scraps that serve variously as signposts or motifs. And in a slippery way, it ties together the assorted ideas put forth in Iyer’s program notes: evolution and genetics, Western notions of the mutant “other,” technology as an alien presence and noise as a musical tool.

These concepts resurface more subtly in the evening’s second half, which begins with a solo piano medley that morphs Leonard Bernstein’s “Somewhere” into John Lennon’s “Imagine.” Iyer’s articulation is both fluid and percussive, and his sonic manipulation of the instrument-sustaining some notes, damping others-is subtly masterful. He’s no less impressive during the ensuing band set, which finds bassist Stephan Crump and drummer Marcus Gilmore joining in on material from Reimagining, Iyer’s new Savoy album. Beginning with a quietly abstract “Alaska,” the trio then tumbles into “Cardio,” a workout propelled by Gilmore’s stop-and-start funk rhythms. Next they finesse “Inertia,” a tune on which Iyer’s left hand chimes quarter-note chords in languid 7/4 time. By the close of a swirling “Composites,” the musicians have transcended their difficult material. Iyer steps forward to acknowledge his ovation, and to dedicate the evening to his wife and their first child, born just two weeks prior.

Vijay Iyer lives in a first-floor apartment in Morningside Heights, on a block that slopes down from Broadway toward the Hudson River. The building’s entrance is a stone’s throw from the wrought-iron gates of Columbia University, where his wife, Christina Leslie, works as a research scientist. Leslie’s field of study involves the use of computer-science technology in the analysis of biological data, a preoccupation that almost certainly informed Mutations. Hers is the name listed in the front foyer of the stately faculty building, their home since moving to the city just before New Year’s Day, 1999.

“We’re still getting accustomed,” Iyer says, glancing at his daughter’s stroller near the door. A few other traces of new-parenthood are scattered around the room. I make small talk with Iyer’s father, who happens to be visiting from upstate, before Iyer and I walk to Le Monde, a bistro down the street.

Iyer’s parents were part of a wave of educated South Asians who came to the United States around the time of the Immigration and Nationality Amendments of 1965. Iyer was born in Rochester, N.Y., in 1971, and raised not according to his South Indian heritage but rather in mainstream American culture. He began classical violin lessons at age three, but by six he had gravitated toward the piano, which became a self-directed obsession. “I got into the whole jazz tradition when I was in high school,” he says. “When I heard Thelonious Monk, it was a revelation. Something about it just seemed so close to home for me-maybe partially as a self-taught pianist. Because of the way I was dealing with the piano, it wasn’t on any formal terms. Well, the formal terms were my body and its interaction with the instrument.”

The role of the body in music perception would eventually be the subject of Iyer’s doctoral dissertation, which he developed at UC Berkeley after undergraduate study at Yale. Originally aiming for a graduate degree in physics, Iyer switched to an interdisciplinary Ph.D. in music and cognitive science after crossing paths with a pair of mentors. The first was David Wessel, chair of the university’s Center for New Music and Audio Technologies. The second was George Lewis, trombonist, composer and longtime pillar of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM). Iyer’s dissertation proposed what he called a “body-based view of music cognition”-in short, an understanding of music not as an abstraction but as a product of humans in action. The work, well received in the scientific community, redressed a European classical bias in the field of cognitive studies. Available in full on Iyer’s Web site (, it’s also conveniently summarized in Uptown Conversation, a collection of jazz-related essays compiled by Columbia’s Jazz Study Group and published in 2004 by Columbia University Press.

Iyer maintains that his graduate studies were always secondary to his musical pursuits. For his first couple of years in the Bay Area, he lived across the street from the Bird Kage, a club with a jam session peopled by veterans like pianist Ed Kelly. “It was like a window into another era,” Iyer says. “You’d set foot in there and feel this tremendous warmth. They were so open to people finding their own way to do things. That was what was heralded above all, even if you were playing a tune that had been played a thousand times. I’m always pegged as this out-cat, but we’d play ‘Freddie Freeloader’ or ‘Stella by Starlight’ and it would be cool. Everybody was sort of stretching. And these were just regular folks. So what’s ‘in,’ what’s ‘out’-that doesn’t even mean anything to me.”

An alternative to the inside/outside dichotomy presented itself in spring of 1993, when Iyer heard alto saxophonist Steve Coleman and his Five Elements band at the original Yoshi’s in Berkeley. “At the time,” Iyer says, “I was into avant-garde stuff that was more associated with the ’60s and ’70s-Cecil Taylor, Anthony Braxton, the AACM. I hadn’t heard anything come along since with a similar level of vision, until then.” A mysterious figure in the ’90s jazz scene, Coleman was the force behind M-Base, an aesthetic theory that advanced, among other things, a pan-African approach to improvised music. Iyer introduced himself during the saxophonist’s next gig, and ended up arranging a Bay Area residency for Coleman in the fall of ’94. Shortly thereafter, Coleman asked Iyer to join his Mystic Rhythm Society on tour-an occasion Iyer remembers as his first professional validation. (One of their Paris concerts was later issued by BMG France as Myths, Modes, and Means.)

Iyer was also establishing relationships with a handful of likeminded Bay Area improvisers, including saxophonist Aaron Stewart, guitarist Liberty Ellman and drummers Derrek Phillips and Elliot Humberto Kavee. (Ellman would become a perennial musical cohort; Stewart and Kavee would become Iyer’s partners in Fieldwork, a collective trio.) Iyer encountered other adventurous players while in the brief employ of Cecil Taylor, who assembled a 40-piece orchestra for the 1995 San Francisco Jazz Festival. Iyer’s own recording debut was made possible by Asian Improv, a nonprofit dedicated to supporting creative Asian-American musicians. Memorophilia, recorded in late summer of ’95, featured cameos by Coleman and George Lewis.

Just days after recording that album, Iyer met alto saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa, who had traveled from Chicago to study with Coleman at the Stanford Jazz Workshop. “Vijay and I met just walking down the hallway,” Mahanthappa recalls, “and Steve came up and said: ‘So you guys have met, right? Because you guys should keep in touch.’ Then Steve looked at Vijay and said, ‘Man, if I ever can’t make your gigs, you need to call this guy.'” Geography prevented their collaboration at first, but the two musicians established a rapport nonetheless. Mahanthappa played on Iyer’s second album, Architextures (Red Giant/Asian Improv), in the summer of ’96.

“We hit it off in every way, very quickly,” Mahanthappa says. “We had so much in common, just as far as our upbringing. We were both children of immigrant Indian parents, intellectuals who came over. We were both trying to find ways to express Indian-American identity-and I think even more than that, we were still trying to figure out what Indian-American identity was.”

“Artistic othering has to do with innovation, invention and change, upon which cultural health and diversity depend and thrive. Social othering has to do with power, exclusion and privilege, the centralizing of a norm against which otherness is measured, meted out, marginalized. My focus is the practice of the former by people subjected to the latter.”

-Nathaniel Mackey, essay,

“Other: From Noun to Verb”

“When I was growing up,” Iyer says, “there wasn’t as much of an infrastructure in the South Asian community as there is now. My exposure to all this stuff was much more haphazard.” Like many second-generation Americans, he actively sought out his heritage as a young adult. He became engrossed in the rhythmic nuances of Carnatic music, a genre native to South India and distinct from the more widely known Hindustani style of Ravi Shankar. But rather than attempting to imitate Carnatic sounds, he absorbed and adapted them for his own purposes. Steve Coleman, who has drawn inspiration from such arcane sources as ancient Egypt, explains it this way: “When you’re dealing with traditions that are very old, there are no sonic representations, so you’re forced to be creative. I would say the same is true if you’re living in this country and your music is informed by something from another culture, like South Indian Carnatic music. They don’t play pianos in that music. So if Vijay wants to apply this information to a standard jazz-quartet setup, he’s going to have to make a lot of creative adjustments.”

Iyer’s process of cultural translation was also inexorably influenced by his experience as a nonwhite U.S. citizen. “This is the reason I continually invoke people like Randy Weston, Max Roach, John Coltrane, Jimi Hendrix and Nina Simone,” Iyer says. “They’re people who were trying to make music about their perspective in America as people of color, and also as people with a heritage that needed to be reconstructed. My relationship to America is as much about being brown as it is about being Indian-maybe more so, in a way. My primary experience growing up wasn’t so much being seen as Indian as being seen as foreign and different, having a funny name, being dark-skinned. So this legacy of people speaking truth to power, voices on the margins commenting on the mainstream-that’s what I related to the most. That’s what resounded to me, these people who had this sustained critical dialogue with America.”

In his landmark 1963 book Blues People: Negro Music in White America (Perennial), Amiri Baraka described the white appropriation of black music in linguistic terms-as the mutation of “swing” from verb to noun. Another poet-scholar, Nathaniel Mackey, borrowed and inverted this idea in an early-’90s essay called “Other: From Noun to Verb.” At the core of Mackey’s argument was a pragmatic notion of language as symbolic action. As Mackey explains it, victims of racist or otherwise repressive “social othering” have often found subversive power through the innovative practice of “artistic othering,” especially in black poetics and jazz. Mackey’s essay was pivotal for Iyer, whose work tackles othering in both senses of the word.

That’s certainly the case, at least, with In What Language?, a song cycle Iyer composed in collaboration with poet Mike Ladd. Inspired by the detainment and deportment of Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi, Iyer and Ladd’s “narrative of lives in transit” masterfully marries word and sound, jazz and groove, and thought and action, in a unified front against the inequities of 21st-century globalization. Premiering the suite at New York’s Asia Society in spring 2003, Ladd and several other spoken-word artists took turns performing indignant, wistful or wryly humorous monologues, while Iyer led a dynamic electro-acoustic ensemble featuring, among others, Mahanthappa and Ellman. Released subsequently on Pi, the project-like Iyer’s concurrent quartet record Blood Sutra (Artists House)-was roundly and rightfully hailed.

Artistic othering is also at play on Reimagining, an album whose very title suggests the symbolic action Mackey describes. Iyer’s solo reading of “Imagine,” which closes the album, renews the immediacy of Lennon’s protest song with dark chordal figures and rumbling 5/4 time. Lennon kicks off the album, too, thanks to a radical recasting of the Beatles’ “Revolution” that interpolates Cecil Taylor riffs and a Carnatic metric grid. The rest of Reimagining is no less serious in purpose. “The Big Almost” is a reference to the 2004 presidential election, and it heeds an appropriately pensive mood. “Song for Midwood” was composed in honor of the section of Brooklyn, also known as “Little Pakistan,” which suffered a rash of unjust post-9/11 arrests that prompted many residents to leave the country. “A mass exodus of one ethnicity out of America, not into it,” Iyer muses. “That’s never happened before. So I kind of wanted to create this piece in tribute to that community and also probe the reality of that experience, meditate on what that means.”

At the same time, the central feature of Reimagining is, quite simply, the elevated musical exchange of Iyer and his compatriots. With the exception of the drum chair, Iyer’s quartet hasn’t changed personnel since 1998. So the deeply etched relationship between Mahanthappa, Iyer and Crump is evident throughout-and Gilmore, the grandson of Roy Haynes, brings a beguilingly groovy and tasteful abstraction that belies his youth. (He’s still in his teens.) The end result is that Reimagining doesn’t sound polemical or pretentious, but progressive and streamlined. Which jibes with one of Iyer’s suggestions: “Despite all the complexity and all of these different ideas and themes that are in play, I’m really striving for simplicity, more and more-even if it’s deceptive.”

Simplicity, deceptive or otherwise, will probably be a perpetual challenge for Iyer during this phase of his career. In addition to the quartet, he still co-leads Fieldwork, which now features saxophonist Steve Lehman and drummer Tyshawn Sorey. Simulated Progress, scheduled for a July release on Pi, furthers an ideal of harmonically restive, rhythmically advanced group improvisation. Meanwhile, Iyer has been juggling a number of ancillary projects-like Mutations, which Ethel has expressed some interest in recording. The week after our conversation, the pianist was busy writing grants for Still Life With Commentator, his next collaboration with Ladd. (The two artists worked together on Ladd’s 2005 album Negrophilia, on Thirsty Ear. Their forthcoming multimedia opus, a meditation on “our role as an audience in wartime,” will premiere at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 2006.) And this is to say nothing of Iyer’s ongoing sideman work with the likes of Mahanthappa, Ellman and AACM trumpet legend Wadada Leo Smith-or, more significantly, the responsibilities of fatherhood.

Yet none of this seems likely to faze Iyer, who technically remains an Indian-American musician with experimental tastes, academic credentials and a finger on the pulse of postmodern culture. In the end, he’s probably best understood as an animation of his own principle: a human body taking action.

Listening Pleasures

Airborn Audio, Good Fortune (Ninja Tune)

Jimi Hendrix, Band of Gypsys (Capitol)

Arditti String Quartet, Gyorgy Ligeti: String Quartets and Duets (Sony Classical)

Roscoe Mitchell, Solo (3) (Mutables)

Thelonious Monk, Live at the It Club (Columbia Legacy)

Abida Parveen, The Incomparable Abida Parveen (Sirocco)

Stevie Wonder, Talking Book (Motown)

“And my iPod on shuffle.”


“At home I have a Steinway S from the 1940s. My favorite to perform on is a Steinway D. I’ve been running Ableton Live, Sibelius, Peak and ProTools on my Apple G4 Powerbook, and also I use a MicroKorg synthesizer.” Originally Published

Nate Chinen

Nate Chinen

Nate Chinen is the director of editorial content for WBGO and a longtime contributor to JazzTimes, which published 125 installments of his column “The Gig” between 2004 and 2017. For 12 years, he was a critic for The New York Times; prior to that, he wrote about jazz for the Village Voice, the Philadelphia City Paper, and several other publications. He is the author of Playing Changes: Jazz for the New Century (2018) and the co-author of George Wein’s autobiography Myself Among Others: A Life in Music (2003).