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Vijay Iyer, Part 1-2

By Published: June 2, 2005
AAJ: It really just came together for me when you said that because he's an intensely melodic player and that does bond with the mathematics of your structures.

VI: Well, he has a mind for math as well; he was really into mathematics in high school. His father's a theoretical physicist, so it's maybe more in his blood than in mine.

AAJ: He and your bassist Stephan Crump have remained constants but each of your three quartet CDs has a different drummer: you've got Derrek Philips on [2001's] Panoptic Modes, Tyshawn Sorey on Blood Sutra [2003], and now you've got Marcus Gilmore on Reimagining, your new album. I like each one of them, but they're not interchangeable players.

VI: Not at all.

AAJ: Any thoughts on how the group's music has changed with each successive drummer?

VI: Hmmm. I think that in a way they changed in ways that sort of fit the times. Like the reason I can't hold on to a drummer is that no one can hold on to a drummer.

AAJ: Is that the truism of musical life?

VI: Well, each of these guys, none of them had major gigs in New York before they worked with me, and then it didn't take long before—I guess I should take it as a compliment because it means that a lot of the right people are listening to me! [laughing] I mean, Greg Osby stole Derrek from me, basically. But Tyshawn, he has ambitions as a bandleader as well, which are now realized to an incredible degree. Not to mention that he's the new drummer in Fieldwork, which I'm very excited about. We just did this tour and he's just blazing, man, he's really incredible—as a player and as a composer, as a thinker. It's really exciting ... Now Marcus [Gilmore] is eighteen years old. I'm not really answering your question yet; I'll go back and do that, but Marcus is eighteen. Actually, he started playing with me when he was sixteen. So not many people had heard him at all before. But he does work with—well, I met him through Steve Coleman, but he also works with Clark Terry. It's funny, it's sort of like his grandfather, who's Roy Haynes, by the way. He can kind of flourish in any situation and never sound like he's compromising at all. He's totally the real deal, totally sure of who he is to a degree that he can deal with musical structure without being hindered by it. Going back to Derrek [Phillips]: he and I worked together a lot in the Bay Area. I had a version of this quartet in the Bay Area, and Rudresh would come out and play with us there and we did some gigs. We traveled, we went to Italy and actually played at this festival in India, before I moved to New York. And so working with Derrek was very much like maintaining the continuity of what we had achieved in the Bay Area, so that when we came to New York, we kind of hit the ground running. We moved at the same time and it was kind of like we were in it together. The music that we made—this is not at all meant as a dis to Derrek, but I wasn't looking to hire the baddest cats to be in my band. It was more like who's around, who's part of my community, who has the sort of love that I need to make this music happen. ... With Derrek, there was a real groundedness to his player that I really loved. In a way, it had to do with his interest in hip-hop and in urban music; having that love for the simplicity so I could develop these intricate structures but then the way he'd approach it would still have this definition and simplicity to it and a pretty strong bottom. Which I thought worked great: that album Panoptic Modes, when I listen to it now, it still feels like an achievement four or five years later.

AAJ: That's pretty telling because most musicians find it hard to listen to their records.

VI: Yeah. Stephan was just saying it's like listening to yourself on the answering machine. "Oh god, do I really sound like that? And with Tyshawn [Sorey], well, Tyshawn is one of the most brilliant musical minds I've ever encountered on any level anywhere. I'm not exaggerating. Not only could he deal with complexity, he'd add additional complexity to my music. That music that's on Blood Sutra, that album he's on, was composed and created in the aftermath of September 11th, and it has a sort of trying to process that thicket of emotions that we all, as New Yorkers, were dealing with. In a way, he was right for that project because there were so many layers to it that you could keep listening and hearing more, sort of realizing more about it as you process it more. It never quite seems finished in a way because it's so—exploding with itself.

AAJ: Well, I strongly recommend that you put all your energies into crippling Marcus's confidence so that he, never, ever leaves your band.

VI: [Laughing] Yeah, it's all about molding young minds to feel dependent. But you know what? I don't think it's possible with him. He's just so incredibly mature. Nothing sticks to him; it all just rolls off his back. He doesn't really have any issues. I think part of it is growing up in a musical family. ... Just never having it be an issue that he would be a musician, for example. It means that when he sits behind the drums he doesn't really have anything to prove.

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