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Vijay Iyer: Part 2-2

By Published: June 2, 2005
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.

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