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Interviews

Vijay Iyer: Part 2-2

By Published: June 2, 2005
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.


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