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Interviews

Vijay Iyer: Part 2-2

By Published: June 2, 2005
Part 1 | Part 2

New York pianist/composer Vijay Iyer may be the musician of 2005. With his remarkable quartet and their fine new CD Reimagining, his collaborative, experimental trio Fieldwork (whose new CD Simulated Progress should turn some heads when it's released in July), his past and future collaborations with spoken-word/experimental hip-hop artist Mike Ladd, and his other ongoing projects, Iyer is undeniably active. He's also very, very good. I spoke with Iyer in Chicago a few hours before his quartet took the stage of the Green Mill for the second of their two-night run.

All About Jazz: Let's talk about Fieldwork, your collaborative trio. What does this band provide for you musically?

Vijay Iyer: It provides a chance to be a part of a collective where everybody is contributing musical ideas, listening to each other and really respecting each other as composers and creators—and really also being committed to the process of collaborative music-making to the point of rehearsing for hours and hours on end. There's nothing else like that in terms of what it brings out of you, and what the end result is and how much you learn about yourself and the possibilities of just—being a human [laughing]. Just being human and being creative. The sorts of projects where it's all about one guy and his ego, everyone else being subordinate to it—I find that over time, they just don't generate dialogue, they don't generate ideas to the same degree. Because people are forced to say yes to some guy. In a group like Fieldwork—to me it's all about process. It's to some extent that truism: the whole is greater than its parts. I remember even with the original version of Fieldwork, we'd be rehearsing some piece that one of us had brought in and we'd just turn it into something else, basically. We'd tape-record it and listen back to it and not even recognize it: "did we just play this? And that's just an incredible feeling which I want to pursue. The idea that we can create something that's larger than ourselves, but mainly that you can create music that contains dynamics that you're not even aware of. I think that's incredible. And I look to all the great collectives, the Art Ensemble [of Chicago] above all. Certainly also Air and Revolutionary Ensemble and even Sun Ra's Arkestra, Duke Ellington Orchestra—stuff where people really were kicking ideas around. Even the great longstanding bands in jazz history like Coltrane's quartet or Ornette's quartet, or the stuff that was happening between Monk and Bird and Max [Roach] and Bud Powell. A scene, you know, when ideas are really flowing back and forth; a lot more is possible.

AAJ: The lineup of the band has changed.

VI: What I'd say about that is that it's really hard in practice to sustain this kind of collective commitment because inevitably other pressures take over. Living in New York, very rarely do you get people to sit down and rehearse for four days in a row for six hours [laughing] or something like that—let alone do that on a regular basis. But that's something that we would do and there's no substitute for that, to what you get to in that process.

AAJ: Not if you want to develop a group mind.

VI: Yeah. I remember when I was first talking to Aaron about this—Aaron Stewart, who's the original saxophonist. He kind of half-jokingly said, "dude, man, that's the rock band ethos. This is jazz. He was being ironic. But it's true in a way. It's a sort of "we're all in this together kind of mentality that you really associate more with rock bands. Fieldwork is a band, really. It's not one guy's band.

AAJ: I think rock bands get that from the fact that they tour a lot. A three-month tour of playing those tunes and having to put up with each other. When they're good bands, they definitely forge a live chemistry that is exciting.

VI: Yeah! Well, you know, part of the reason that we called the new album Simulated Progress is that up 'til recently we hadn't had much opportunity to tour. And yet—well, this is actually something I also got from Cecil [Taylor]. I think it's in the liner notes to Unit Structures or one of his albums from that period. He mentions, like, "well, no one's giving us any gigs so I have to simulate the progress of a working band by rehearsing a lot and treating my home as a workshop. So that's what we did with our rehearsal space. It's only now are we starting to tour and actually take it to a whole other level. I'm really happy with this music we've worked out. I feel like we got into some stuff that I never dreamed of.

AAJ: Simulated Progress hasn't been released yet, has it?

VI: No, it comes out in July.

AAJ: Sometimes with this band it seems like you carry the role of bass playing to some extent. There's no bassist in the group. I hear this in the bass line of "Transgression.

VI: It's funny because that might be the easiest one. So maybe it's a little more clear because, for example, the bass line is more melodic. But yeah, in a way because of that—well, a lot of things happen. When you remove the bassist from the traditional jazz instrumentation, everybody has to think about their roles differently. The whole notion of instrument functionality completely changes; it dissolves, basically, because everybody has to do everything. You have to start from scratch about how you want to fill the musical space. And that's actually been a productive way of proceeding. I think of all the things that the people from the AACM [Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians] would do almost to force themselves to come up with different musical shit. Like [Henry] Threadgill would make a whole record with four flute players. Like who else would have the audacity? Now this [Fieldwork] is a much milder version of that, I guess. But trying to ... really force ourselves to think what it is that we're doing.

AAJ: That's an interesting thing you bring up. It's something that I'm trying to find in electronica but not usually finding. When I buy some electronica CD, I'm doing it because I feel, "all right, this music is completely constructed differently so if they wanted to, and if they're smart enough, they could reinvent music. It's not like, "I'm the drummer, so I play the kick here and the snare here. And you do get that newness sometimes, but mostly you don't. Of course, it's easy for me to say as a fan that I want someone to reinvent music, but that's a pretty hard thing to do.

VI: That's a tall order, to be sure. Actually, I find that even when people say that, that's not really what they want. They want something that leads them to think that it's being reinvented, but they don't really want something that fundamentally challenges their own assumptions about music.

AAJ: "I want the illusion of newness.

VI: Yes, exactly. I think in psychology, they call it the peak shift effect. If you imagine that all human activity falls on some kind of bell curve, and say in music what you're used to is somewhere around the peak of the curve, if you do something that's a little bit ahead of the peak, then it seems like you're doing something new. But if you something on the fringe, people can't deal with it at all. So it needs to be enough like what people are used to—while still seeming a little bit new. But that's not the way we're thinking with this project. That's why, in a way, we get mixed reviews with it. Sometimes it's so new to people that it doesn't compute and then they just get mad, or something. Or else they think they have it all figured out, because it reminds them of something else—which really means that they aren't listening closely. But it's okay, because we're about doing what we're doing. It's very satisfying, and it's actually really exciting to do live. People really respond to it in person.

AAJ: "Headlong —from the Simulated Progress CD—has intervals remind me of the Mahavishnu Orchestra. And I know that I'm missing the point, that it comes from a completely different place.

VI: Well, all I can say is I never listened to that stuff in depth. I would like, to at this point, because I think I'm beyond the danger of being influenced by it. But maybe the thing is that we're both influenced by the same things. In a way, it's dealing with a blues form and also with a carnatic rhythm form.

AAJ: Yes, I think John McLaughlin was fusing those back in 1971 or so, very much in a bombastic rock tradition.

VI: Well, ["Headlong ]'s a pretty bombastic piece. I think we use that kind of sound sparingly. We almost make a joke of it by opening [the CD] with it—and then immediately going into something very different. That's just sort of one side of what's possible in this context, I guess. Maybe that's the most like fusion of anything we're doing.

AAJ: Maybe so. That's a very rock thing to start the album with: the crowd-pleaser.

VI: And I was against it myself.

AAJ: You thought it was too obvious?

VI: Yeah. I thought it would be too macho or something like that. Like, "check out what badasses we are! We can play this! And frankly, I can barely play it, and I wrote it. But those guys convinced me to make it first, and actually I'm really happy with the way it falls in the album. And in a way it couldn't have gone anywhere else.

AAJ: Let's talk a little about your previous quartet CD Blood Sutra. I really like that album, and it works beautifully as a CD, but it's an excerpted version of an evening-length suite. Can you tell me about the project and what the full version was like?

VI: I guess the pragmatic answer is that I got a grant from the New York State Council of the Arts to create a suite of music. And we performed all of it; it was like two sets of music. So we performed it, we developed it over a while, and I sort of cherry-picked the ones that seemed to fit on an album. In a way, whenever you're making an album—actually, this is true with almost everything I've done—there's stuff that didn't make it. That's the way it is. You want to make a good album. As much as you want to get everything on there, to me it's really about making sure it works as a whole as well. If you're trying to fit two sets of music onto one CD, or even trying to issue it all at once, it doesn't really work. Then there were just pieces that were written for the occasion, but we progressed through, or kind of grew out of them. I spoke earlier about what that album was about, what historically framed that whole project [September 11th], and maybe certain pieces sort of stuck and others didn't. As the world kept turning, it almost felt like some of it just wasn't worth clinging to. All these kinds of factors come into play when you're putting together a piece of work that's going to go out into the universe beyond your control. You really want to do as much as you can; right before you set it free, you want to have as coherent and complete a statement, and as economical, as you can possibly make. It's possible to say too much and dilute what you're trying to say.

AAJ: I really like "Habeas Corpus. That's one of my favorites of yours.

VI: Yeah, that's actually "Body and Soul.

AAJ: I hadn't realized that! Same changes?

VI: Well, it's revised. I changed the harmony and the rhythm and the melody [laughing], so what's left?

AAJ: I don't know, but I hope I don't just love it merely because it reminds me of something I know.

VI: I guess I was kind of playing with that. There are a couple of things going on. Like I was thinking of, on the one hand, 'Trane's version of "Body and Soul. Also Monk's solo version was pretty radical. So I kind of brought together ideas from both of those and also dealt with this rhythmic framework that I was sort of exploring. I dealt with different ways of swapping chords around using this kind of Bartokian notion, so that in a way the entire harmonic field is reduced to just three chords. But I was also thinking of Monk doing "Just You, Just Me. He created this melody over it which he first called "Just Us, which then became "Justice, which then became "Evidence. So the tune "Evidence is sort of this riff on "Just You, Just Me. Actually, [Monk scholar] Robin Kelly saw a symbolic significance of moving through this notion of justice—situating that in a black American perspective of what justice is. Whether it exists. So, moving from "Body and Soul to "Habeas Corpus, there was a certain similar frame of mind. There's a playfulness but also a critical sensibility.

AAJ: The album's got some serious stuff, but "Kinship feels very joyous to me.

VI: Well, it approximates swing maybe more than anything else on that album. Also, it approximates major tonality more than anything else on that album, except maybe "Because of Guns. So maybe that's where that's coming from. I was interested in using these alternative means to come up with elements like the major chord, or a swing feel. Actually those aspects were arrived at through more almost mathematical means. So it's about looking at the interface between some sort of rational order and the human body and realities of human perception. That's part of what's going on there. Also, it's about thinking about family. The theme that kind of underlies the whole project is different sides, different aspects of the word "blood. How blood can connote all these different areas of experience. And so I guess I really wanted to hone in on something that's very familiar and comfortable while still putting it in this larger framework of how loaded a signifier the word is.

AAJ: Probably the most loaded of all words.

VI: Certainly at that time.

AAJ: You seem to have some affection for classic rock with the John Lennon bookending of the last song on Reimagining, "Imagine, and its first song "Revolutions, with its sort of paraphrasing of the Beatles' "Revolution. And on Blood Sutra there's "Because of Guns, which has the Hendrix phrase and turnaround from "Hey Joe incorporated into its structure. Do you like that kind of music?

VI: Do I like classic rock? Well, let's just say that it's as much a part of who I am as anything else. It was something that was around when I was growing up and [laughing] there's no shortage of classic rock stations in the United States!

AAJ: No, it's available.

VI: At any time of day, you can turn on a radio in any city...

AAJ: You might not even have to tune it.

VI: Right, exactly [laughing]. It'll probably self-tune to that station. Again, like what I said earlier about what it means to cover a song—I'm really interested in playing with the resonances that these cultural artifacts have. What does it mean to reactivate the song "Imagine, or the song "Hey Joe? Why do these songs have this sort of almost mythic significance in American culture—and what does it mean when you engage with it today? What does it say about you? What does it do to the listener? And how do you articulate your own relationship to those pieces of music? So maybe more than trying to express an affection for these songs, I'm more interested in trying to reactivate them. That's the best word I can come up with.

AAJ: It's a good word because so much of that music's power for people is, in my opinion, nostalgia. It's interesting when you approach it because for some of those songs, what you have is a barely animate corpse of a song—can you get that thing to actually move around a little bit?

VI: Yeah, yeah—it's like, what do you do to a song that you've heard hundreds or thousands of times, mostly against your will [laughing]? Like a song that you know even when you didn't want to know it: "why do I know all the words of this song? I've never even paid attention to it. So I guess that I'm interested in that. That's not to say that I don't like these songs. But particularly in the case of the "Hey Joe thing—Hendrix did not write that song. And so even when he did it, I felt like there was something akin to what we were saying about Bird doing Cole Porter or Irving Berlin songs—even more so in a way, because there was something so shamanistic about the way [Hendrix] teased out this ritual violence in the song. That's a quintessentially American myth about gun violence. That's what that song is, even though it's written by a Scotsman, Billy Roberts. It's easy to just latch onto the guitar heroics of it, but really, I felt like Hendrix was making a point by dealing with that piece of music. He was a pretty politicized person, actually. It comes out in songs like "Machine Gun as much as anything else.

AAJ: Yeah, I like that one. Now, Hendrix did write that turnaround in "Hey Joe. And now everyone plays it.

VI: Right, people think it's part of the song—which apparently no one knows, because it's just his arrangement. Anyway, that's sort of the case with all these songs: when the song "Revolution gets used to sell Nike, or "Imagine gets used to sell Apple, is it possible to detach these songs from the realm of—well, it's never possible to detach anything from the realm of capitalism at this point, but even to kind of imagine, reimagine these songs in some other context that isn't completely commodified.

AAJ: And good! Can someone use this material and not suck? And I'll say, in your case, yeah! Anyway, I want to ask you about your other great collaborator Mike Ladd and your In What Language? project. Tell me what you like about working with Ladd.

VI: Well, what I liked about him enough to approach him initially—well, I loved his writing as a lyricist and poet, and I loved his way of working with music. Sometimes you hear these spoken-word artists with their own bands or doing their poetry over their own music, and it's a one-note-wonder kind of thing. Sometimes they're just sort of yelling over the music and not really listening to the music. What I really appreciated about him is that he's really in music; when he's dealing with music, he's hearing all of it in a very sensitive and informed way. He just seemed like he'd be a good person to work with from a purely musical perspective. And also he has this really sharp global awareness that is a good fit for the kind of stuff that I'm trying to address in my music.

AAJ: I don't think there's anybody sharper in that particular subject matter. No one's more astute.

VI: Yeah, he continues to amaze me, actually. And then, beyond all that, he ended up being just a great collaborator on a day-to-day level, too. When we were putting [In What Language?] together, we were both very much concerned about the same things, it's the same issues that would come up, we both totally respected each other's opinions and abilities—it just really flowed very organically. So it kind of went beyond what I even expected, just in terms of how rewarding a collaboration it would be.

AAJ: It's a collaboration that seems to have legs of its own.

VI: Well, we're doing more. I think he may have told you about this new project that we're developing. It's called Still Life With Commentator; it's sort of dealing with the media and the way we experience global atrocity through the media, through TV news and the blogosphere. Not necessarily critiquing the role of the media in our lives—more just trying to imagine a different relationship that we might have with these same elements.

AAJ: How far have you gotten with this?

VI: We have a bit of material. He's written the first draft of the entire libretto and I've been developing some pieces. We did a duo gig in London in November, actually, where we sort of test-drove the material in front [laughing] of two thousand people! That was pretty hilarious. We were opening for somebody else, but still—it was weird. But that was great. It's been coalescing. I guess the main target date is Fall of '06. It hasn't all really crystallized, but there's going to be this multimedia piece, performance piece—beyond just the music and text level. We're collaborating with a conceptual theater artist named Ibrahim Quraishi. He's doing some really interesting stuff. I think it'll be pretty confrontational and pretty edgy, but also dealing with technology. It's really an interesting libretto.

AAJ: In What Language? is a different side of your work in that the music is very composed and tightly arranged. It sort of has to be with the vocalists, or you'd have chaos. Do you enjoy that kind of composition and structuring?

VI: It was a major learning process for me; actually, that project kind of goes back and forth. There's some pieces, especially Mike's pieces, which are completely bare-bones in terms of how they're structured. It really does lead in to a certain controlled chaos at times, which I thoroughly dig. But [with] other stuff I was really trying to create space for these texts in terms of the characters behind them. So you really have to create in a different way, especially because I'm used to writing for improvisers, which is a different thing. It's really more about setting things in motion rather than dictating everything. But there is a lot of improvisation on that album and all the improvisation is used very compositionally. And that's something I had to make clear to the musicians—that when you're taking a solo on a piece like "Three Lotto Stories or the title track, even—somehow you need to think about what it's about. Besides just showing that you can play, which I know that you can do already, just try to imagine that you're either speaking as this character or speaking to this character—so it has some relationship to what's going on here. It's not just about you at that point; that was the main thing, to play music that's not about you, and that's not about you as a player. It's about something else, and it was really an adventure, really inspiring, to work that way.

AAJ: "Taking Back the Airplane is my current favorite on the album. For a while I was obsessed with "De Gaulle, as is my wife.



VI: I really like that one too. Actually, "De Gaulle is Mike's favorite.

AAJ: "Taking Back the Airplane, though—I like the horn ensembles on it. And for some reason, when I hear those arranged horn harmonies, it makes me wonder if you've thought about doing large-ensemble composition.

VI: I've thought about it; I guess the opportunity hasn't quite arisen yet and in a way, also, I'm into these [laughing] manageable-size ensembles! I guess the largest I've written for is a nonet. And I actually arranged some of my older pieces for the Columbia Jazz Ensemble... that was the most recent thing that I did. Yeah, it's something I'd like to do; I guess I'm waiting for the right opportunities. Actually, this guy from Finland contacted me and said that they have a wind ensemble that he wants me to write for. So maybe it'll happen.

AAJ: So, you've got this upcoming Still Life With Commentator project with Mike Ladd, and this brand-new quartet album—

VI: Yeah, between this [quartet album and work] and the Fieldwork project and the new stuff with Mike—and Rudresh and I have had this ongoing duo since '96. We have this pretty enormous body of material.

AAJ: And not a note's been officially released.

VI: Yeah, we're both hoping to get something out by early '06. The other thing: I did this piece with Ethel, a string quartet—they're sort of like the new Kronos Quartet. They're great, they're one of the top quartets that I've ever heard. I did a piece with them where I was playing piano and electronics; I sampled them and created all this stuff from samples of them and of their playing written material and some open-ended stuff where they have to make decisions in real time based on some constraints, deal with the written material in a more improvisational way. So that's this piece called "Mutations which—well, I was just talking to John Zorn, and he wants to put this out on his classical music series. And then [I'm working] as a sideman with Wadada Leo Smith, occasionally Roscoe [Mitchell] still, also occasionally with [poet/activist] Amiri Baraka. Also with Greg Tate's band Burnt Sugar, I do that sometimes, and also still playing in Rudresh [Mahanthappa]'s band, which is really exciting too. And I'm developing this body of stuff for solo piano; I'm doing a solo concert at The Stone, which is this new, little spot in New York that Zorn opened. So that'll be fun; that's at the end of July. And this project with Ladd, we're just building piece by piece: I'm doing a kind of experiment with an ensemble at the end of August: it's me and Okkyung Lee, who's a great, amazing cello player, and Pamela Z, the experimental vocalist from San Francisco, and Guillermo Brown, who's been playing electronic percussion. We'll be dealing with some of these texts from Still Life, almost like a sectional warmup ensemble experiment for that project. And Mike and I are doing some more duo gigs as another side of Still Life later in September. We're trying to space it out so that we really get a chance to develop it. We started with this gig at BAM that's in a year-and-a-half, so we're trying to figure out how we can really ramp up to it in a way that's not forced. I have faith in the process, so something's going to come out of it.


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