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Vijay Iyer, Part 1-2

By Published: June 2, 2005
AAJ: In terms of those first two CDs [Memorophilia, 1995 and Architextures, 1998]—what you could call your West Coast period—do you think your playing has changed significantly since you made those albums?

VI: Yeah. I hope it's gotten better. Well, a lot has happened. I mean, I've really worked more on technique than I had at the time. And also just being in dialogue with all these other incredible musicians like my collaborators. I'd been starting to work with Steve Coleman at the time, but also continuing to work with Rudresh [Mahanthappa] for all this time now, working with Roscoe Mitchell, with Wadada Leo Smith (who I just did a tour with), with Butch Morris. Working in hip-hop and rock, and all kind of different contexts like that, and working with classical musicians—all that really informs what I'm doing. Not only that, but also that kind of academic work I did was very much in dialogue with the music I'm making. I learned a lot from that in terms of how to structure and how to just—own my music. So yeah, my playing has changed in that it's incorporated more life experience, I guess is the best way to put it. I try to just keep up with the people I'm playing with.

AAJ: Yeah, that can be a powerful motivation.

VI: [Laughing] Yeah, trying not to lose these gigs, basically.

AAJ: Your music is complex, both harmonically and certainly rhythmically. But to me there is just as strong an emotional content. Songs like "Phalanx and "Habeas Corpus are teeming with emotion. Are you aware of consciously balancing emotion and technical structure in your music?

VI: Yeah. To me, the structures are just almost beside the point. Well, they definitely are not the point, I'll put it that way. They're more of a means to achieve something that's maybe even larger than ourselves. When dealing with very specific kinds of abstraction, like when you're imposing rhythmic systems or mathematical entities onto human bodies, trying to make music—then something happens. It's sort of about the friction between you as a person and these kind of more rational notions of order. I'm really interested in what comes out of that juxtaposition. So that's one answer. The other answer is that all my music, even though it's dealing with structure, is also dealing with something larger than notes and rhythms. It's certainly about trying to channel my life experiences and articulate a certain point of view on the world. It's also about a sense of community that comes out of collaboration—and that kind of real, collective moment. I really put a lot of faith into that and I think that it's not something to be taken for granted. I see it as a very emotionally charged moment, the moment of collaborating with somebody. I'm very inspired by Coltrane, for example, of which much the same thing could be said—except that he did it better [laughing]. Anyway, he's a major inspiration to me, and I feel like he is also kind of, ah, what's the word—nucleating [laughing]. Or sort of crystallizing this sort of sensibility that's very rigorous and also very righteous. I guess I really draw a lot from that way of setting forth musical ideas: dealing with rigor but also dealing with the fact that this music is about people and it's about people in the world who have certain kinds of experiences in the world. So it's referring to something outside of just the purely musical.

AAJ: More than notes. Speaking of collaboration, you've got a very longstanding relationship with altoist Rudresh Mahanthappa in your quartet. Now you play with [altoist] Steve Lehman in your collaborative trio Fieldwork. These are hardly generic players, and neither is Steve Coleman, who you've worked with—but do you have a special affinity for alto sax?

VI: It's more the people than the instrument. I mean, I think if Rudresh played tuba, I'd still be working with him. Although he'd be on to some different shit if he played tuba! But it's not about the instrument; it's about the mind behind it. Rudresh and I have a particular bond because of all these shared experiences and the commonality in terms of our heritage, and also the moment at which we came together ten years ago was just really crucial in both of our lives to where we were going to go next. I think we were just able to come together and really address a lot of questions that we had in common—to work on some of the same areas of creative inquiry together in a way that was very complimentary mutually in terms of how it fit. In a way, because he had focused—in terms of dealing with Indian music, for example—he had been focusing a lot on the melodic sides of Hindustani music, and I had been focusing a lot on the rhythmic sides of carnatic music. He's been focusing on Coltrane and I'd been focusing a lot on Monk. Just the way it came together was a good fit in a lot of ways.

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