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Vijay Iyer: Into The Mainstream

By Published: December 21, 2009
New York-based pianist and composer Vijay Iyer is a rhythmic explorer whose piano trio album Historicity (ACT, 2009) is a cohesive and vibrant record that carries its creator and his colleagues firmly into the mainstream of modern music. The album stems from, among other sources, a succession of striking piano trio influences such as Duke Ellington
Duke Ellington
Duke Ellington
1899 - 1974
's trio recording with Charles Mingus
Charles Mingus
Charles Mingus
1922 - 1979
bass, acoustic
and Max Roach
Max Roach
Max Roach
1925 - 2007
, Money Jungle (Blue Note, 1962), the small group Blue Note recordings by Andrew Hill
Andrew Hill
Andrew Hill
1937 - 2007
, and the groundbreaking African Rhythms Trio of Randy Weston
Randy Weston
Randy Weston
. On the way, Iyer's interest in 1970s R&B and funk, classical polytonalists such as Gyorgi Ligeti, and hip-hop rhythmic structuralists like MIA are infused. Though there is, of course, no guitar on the album, the general feel of Jimi Hendrix's Band Of Gypsys (Capitol, 1970), an album Iyer mentions as one of several "reference points" for the album, is not an inappropriate comparison.

Historicity is a rocking, funky album as well as a record that exhibits fluid jazz playing, and it communicates intensity and communicates instantly on a number of levels. As Iyer says in the liner notes to the album, "music connects ... carrying us smoothly across the tumult of experience..." With tunes ranging from Leonard Bernstein to MIA, it is also a trip across apparent musical divides, divides that Iyer shows to not really be divides at all. Different "genres" of music are themselves also interconnected. The album has a main focus on jazz and R&B from the '60s and '70s, but whatever the source of the influence it is always music that, to paraphrase Iyer's own words, is trying to tell you something.

The record also has a seamless, connected feel, and this arises from two factors: the meaning behind the covers on the album, (some of which also have a calendrical, "zeitgeist" connection—three of the covers were originally released in 1972)—and also a subtle thematic connection between the tracks, although different writers, including Iyer, are represented. In keeping with the authentic funk and soul feel of the music, the album is also available on LP, the first of Iyer's to be available in the format. Historicity may act as a kind of "through-composed" melodic fusion of Iyer's journey so far and, also, as a breakout into new rich musical territory.

Chapter Index
  1. Introduction
  2. Historicity
  3. Duke Ellington And The Modern Piano Trio
  4. Classical Influence
  5. Indian Classical Music
  6. So What Is Jazz Now?
  7. Collaborations With Mike Ladd
  8. Orchestral And Stage Compositions
  9. The Future


Iyer's trio (at times in the past a quartet, with the addition of the sometimes haunting, at other times lush, Rudresh Mahanthappa on alto saxophone) is his main group and touring vehicle. The other two members of the trio are the percussive Stephan Crump from Memphis, on bass, and Marcus Gilmore on drums. Gilmore is a grandson of Roy Haynes. Iyer's first trio album Memorophilia (Asian Improv) was released in 1995. Iyer is also known for other formats, including his "second" trio "Fieldwork" (comprising Iyer, and co-leaders and co-composers alto saxophonist Steve Lehman and drummer Tyshawn Sorey), his duo with Mahanthappa called "Raw Materials," and the two brilliant largely electronic collaborations with poet and spoken voice/hip hop artist Mike Ladd, and for other projects, including a recent orchestral commission.

Iyer's albums have primarily been comprised of original compositions, but Historicity is largely covers, with Iyer originals beginning and ending the record. Jazz musicians, even composers like John Coltrane
John Coltrane
John Coltrane
1926 - 1967
, have of course frequently played covers—in fact, the concept of "covers" didn't really exist in earlier jazz, as most records were covers. Musicians usually played other people's songs, Tin Pan Alley tunes. Iyer, born in 1971, is however a product of the rock, soul and R&B era of the '60s, '70s and '80s, an era where artists have usually written their own music from the ground up. So, he has usually recorded his own music. A trend of the trio visiting other tunes has developed only in recent times.

When looking for covers, Iyer has been drawn to music with interesting musical structures, such as "I'm All Smiles" from Tragicomic (Sunnyside, 2008). This is similar to Duke Ellington, who, when he was looking for covers, chose music with interesting chord progressions and melodies. And, not surprisingly, given the tendency of the free-jazz/rock era to produce tunes that operate on more than just the musical level, Iyer has also recorded pieces that convey messages or lyrical tension, such as John Lennon's "Imagine," or Jimi Hendrix's take on "Hey Joe."

Stevie Wonder's "Big Brother" is one of the covers on Historicity and is a good example of the latter. Iyer says that there is what he calls a "disruptive" element to most of the covers on the album. This element appears to arise from the quest of the original writers to assert an identity or to find a place or a stake in the world, or at least to comment on this attempt by others. As the majority of the new covers are from the early '70s, they reflect a time of civil struggle—and big musical changes in Afro-American music—in America.

The album title itself is a pointer to what the album does. The word "historicity" (as explained in the liner notes), means the ability of a subject to be positioned or recorded in history. On the album, Iyer looks to this turbulence of the early '70s. He also updates the theme with an equally impassioned original, "Galang," by the modern British-Sri Lankan artist MIA. In addition, the album contains an excellent version of the inventive "Smokestack" by Blue Note pianist Andrew Hill, from his 1963 album of the same name. Thus Iyer seems to also represent the civil rights expansion of the '60s, to set the scene for the '70s numbers.

Bernstein's brilliant tune "Somewhere" (from "West Side Story") appears, at first sight, to act as a kind of contrast, standing as track two on the album. Yet, given its theme of individuals looking for a place to fit in, "Somewhere" may actually be on the same page as the other (musically) restless and disruptive covers. The inspiration for the original of the MIA cover, the current civil war in Sri Lanka, shows that strife is never far away from somewhere in the world. Maybe the point of the "Somewhere" cover (apart from a possible thematic aspect) is that its message may be the antidote to this disruption—somewhere, if you keep looking, there may be a place free of disruption, or an eventual way to make a space for yourself, a place to find sanctuary, a place to belong (as the lyrics of "Somewhere" so eloquently state).

The theme of focusing on or reflecting certain events in history has always been a part of Iyer's music. Earlier examples are Panoptic Modes (Red Giant Records, 2002), which was written in the aftermath of 9/11, and Reimagining (Savoy Jazz, 2005), which is from the period immediately after the 2004 Presidential election. There are also the collaborations with Mike Ladd. In these endeavors, Iyer is reacting to that "tumult of experience" mentioned in the liner notes, and this gives hismusic an added depth. As he also says, "it's the past that's setting us in motion." Historicity uses covers, and the trio's cohesive interpretation of them, to achieve this.

Iyer himself is probably in a unique position to make commentary on such musico- historical areas. His parents came to America from southern India, settling in the Rochester, New York area, and so he is familiar with issues of social changes, people fitting into a new environment, diasporas, and so on. He speaks of being inspired by the (cover) artists' strivings to make a space for themselves as artists, and he clearly has a special connection to this state of being (or progression). His speech frequently includes words such as "connect," "dialogue" and "discourse," showing the need to communicate strongly is a paramount factor in his art. Historicity is the first Iyer album to focus on an area before the current day, rather than have a record reflect the aftermath of a recent event such as 9/11. The use of cover tunes with a similar flavor and feel is a tremendous way to do this, and of course the message is still valid today ("Galang"), if not timeless ("Somewhere").

The music may communicate the thread and meaning of these connected eras, events and quests, but the tracks also share the common musical thread of funk and R&B and groove, brilliantly conveyed and melded by the trio. For the listener, possibly oblivious to the history, the result may be simply a surging, pumped-up and lyrical recording of today, pointing a way forward in music. Musically, this is what it is, yet, standing back, Historicity is a great example of what can be done in art—taking a subject and, with varied influences, producing something new and striking.

As a composer, Iyer has a very broad range of influences, including non-Western concepts of rhythm, Western classical music (particularly modern composers such as Ligeti, who work with smaller units of music that are then extended), and, as is evident on this album, rock, funk, R&B and soul. All this is added to the influences of the usually recognized "jazz" composers such as Ellington, Monk, Bud Powell, Coltrane and Weston, and of other jazz identities.

The best albums have a strong unity between the tracks, and Historicity has exactly this. Iyer's composing (and in the case of the covers, re-composing—the liner notes carry the words "arr Iyer" after the composer's name), as well as the theme of the messages exhibited by the covers, ensure a cohesive record. It is more than a series of tracks. Iyer explains that he carefully chose the order of the tunes. There are even approximate thematic links between them (including the covers), beginning with the characteristic triplets on which Bernstein built "Somewhere." Iyer's own compositions on the album also generally have one small, essentially melodic figure, around or through which the piece is built. In the covers, where such a figure does not already exist, Iyer has inserted one (for example, Iyer uses the three-note figures in "Smokestack" and also in his own tune "Helix" to prepare the listener for the approaching end of the track).

On all levels, the album smoothly crosses the (apparent) musical barriers as if they were just a bend in the road. For example, the tracks most widely separated in time and genre, "Somewhere" and "Galang," may appear to have nothing in common, but Iyer shows there are still connections. Both are created from simple, repeated musical figures and both have the same broader thematic connections in their messages. Iyer has united them, showing that music really is all one connected thing with the purpose to connect people and to communicate.

The trio performs magnificently: bassist Crump plays percussively and at times, like Iyer at the piano, provides dramatic extremes of pitch. Drummer Gilmore provides a myriad of funky, complex textures. Iyer says the trio thinks of itself as a rhythm section (as much as it thinks of itself as a musical unit performing other musical roles). Rhythm is a major contributor to the power of the album. The trio's funky cover of the Ronnie Foster
Ronnie Foster
track "Mystic Brew" has already been uploaded to Youtube—the introduction has "hook" written all over it. Historicity is a combination of rock, funk, soul and jazz: these influences have always been present for the trio, and are now fully displayed together in one album. Some previous commentators have described Iyer's music as "spiky" or pointy, but this album is all funk and groove, despite its intriguing underpinnings.

Iyer is keen to highlight the particular album and group models that have influenced the album, such as Duke Ellington's trio recording Money Jungle. The trio follows firmly in the footsteps of these great forebears. The overall feel of the album is almost like a rock album. Like Band Of Gypsys, which is a live performance, and like Money Jungle too, it is also not difficult to imagine the record as a definitive theatre-style concert. When the trio played the Newport Jazz Festival in August, all the tracks were from Historicity, even if Iyer felt compelled to segue the title track into "Big Brother" because of the time of day at which the trio was playing.

Iyer's piano style, a percussive powerful approach with the color of Powell, the intense "rod of iron" that Cecil Taylor
Cecil Taylor
Cecil Taylor
maintains through his pieces, and the keyboard scope of Weston, has over time evolved into a more complex style (as his technique has expanded). His early albums (such as Memorophilia and its expansive successor Architextures (Red Giant Records, 1998) were bright and clear. The later albums have been more complex (for example, the excellent Panoptic Modes).

There are also "world" influences in Iyer's music. In his fusing of these approaches with his other influences, Iyer can be seen as a spotlight on what is happening in a lot of music now in general, even beyond jazz, where an increasing attention to "world" music is a trend.

To the extent that he has focused on era and message-related covers to draw together a feel, a musical entity that is this album, Iyer has maybe opened up a new path that may be mined more in the future, and not just by Iyer. Other musicians could follow this example. The album is more than new jazz: it is new music that powerfully reaches beyond any one category of music.


The title track "Historicity" (the first of the album) is a frequently played longer composition of Iyer's. It builds with clusters of energy. Chromatic slides move the music around to different keys. Then there is "Somewhere," which receives a recomposing in a similar way to his excellent version of John Lennon's "Imagine" on the 2005 album, Reimagining. But the original tune of "Somewhere" is far more involved than "Imagine." So, then, is the cover, the "re-imagining." As with the title track, unity is achieved over the long track by way of key changes. Iyer's version includes a blues aspect in an improvisation-like (a.k.a. classical-style "development") section, a through-composed notion analogous to Duke Ellington's famous early piece "Rockin' in Rhythm." As a result of this approach, interest never wavers during Iyer's longer pieces.

Iyer ordered the tracks carefully: "I spent a lot of time really thinking about the shape of the album," he says. "In a way, it started with a lot of pieces, stand-alone tunes. In terms of coming to the final sequence, I probably spent a couple of weeks just thinking about that! I really wanted to understand how that shape guides the listener through the experience, in the way that a longer form would work."

The cohesive way that the album and the music is constructed almost gives the album the effect of a symphonic work—it would not be an impossible task to orchestrate it as one whole piece. Referencing the unity of the record, Iyer says that he thinks of it like a film. In this comment, he reveals the intent behind the album, the existence of a mission to bring a unique experience to the listener. Iyer says, "I don't want to compare it to a symphony—I guess I'd compare it more to a film." The album has a powerful communicative effect—the "disruptive" tracks are certainly a passionate expression of music with a direct message. They do have a film-like aspect.

The connected motifs (either in the original, or inserted by Iyer) appear, in a sense, to begin with the Bernstein composition: it is first in the sense of the time it was written and is also the second track. The basic three-note melodic unit in "Somewhere" links to small sections of melody in the other pieces. There is always a neat figure (or several figures) as a signature, and the figure in "Somewhere" itself could be seen as a unifying motif for the whole album—as if it had somehow been able to blend into the other tracks. For example, the title track contains a similar flexible figure that Iyer shifts chromatically at times, to move around key- wise. Then, both "Galang" and "Big Brother" have pounding riff figure focal points, pinning the music to the underlying rhythm (the repeated hook in "Galang," and the three-note figure rhythmic figure in "Big Brother"). "Helix" and "Smokestack" also have their three-note figures.

Returning to Iyer's effectively compositional selection of track order, Wonder's "Big Brother" is well placed, arriving after tracks four and five—"Helix" (which begins as a chromatic, impressionistic haze before the music speeds up two thirds in) and Hill's Monk-Powellian "Smokestack"—to greet the listener with a more familiar "Top 40" sound. The Wonder tune is really a blues.

Hemphill's "Dogon AD," the next piece, has the flavor of avant-garde but also an irresistible groove; there is some thematic unity with "Galang," given the minor-third riff in the bass. Crump also demonstrates some brilliant high arco playing in the latter part of the number. The next track is "Mystic Brew" with its tremendous groove—at the beginning, there is a faint echo of the beginning of "Autumn Leaves" on Cannonball Adderley's classic album Somethin' Else (Riverside, 1959).

So the album sees, at its heart, Iyer re-interpreting some of the freshest and most evocative music of the early '70s (not forgetting Hill's visionary '60s "Smokestack").

The final two tracks are Iyer compositions, an updated development of his previously recorded tune "Trident" (it's almost a theme tune for him) and "Segment For Sentiment #2." Both have vibrant melodies or figures and elegant developments.

Iyer's Newport Jazz Festival gig in August began with the title track "Historicity," which, before its end, segued into the Wonder cover "Big Brother." Iyer explains the segue: "(Laughs). Yeah, that [the title track "Historicity"] was really at odds with the time of day. It's too early to do the ending of 'Historicity.' Because of the way that track ends, it feels really dire! (laughs.) It (was) 11:30 in the morning, and there are all these sail boats on the horizon ... place and time." "We're used to playing our music at night," he adds, explaining that it is easier for people to appreciate it then.

At Newport, Iyer also played an intriguing piece entitled "Our Lives." He says, "It is actually the bonus track on the album—it'll be released download only, I think, this month. I said at Newport, 'It's one of the first ballads I ever wrote, which is why it's not really a ballad!' (laughs.) It starts off like that and then it explodes."

The three cover tracks from 1972 (in addition to "Big Brother," there are Hemphill's "Dogon AD" and "Mystic Brew") are a major part of the record, but at the time of recording, Iyer was not aware of the time link: "Yes, someone else pointed that out to me, the Stevie Wonder piece, the Julian Hemphill piece and 'Mystic Brew,' the originals, are all from that moment. I was born in late 1971, so they were probably recorded about the time I was born. I definitely didn't realize that until after the fact. ... It was only pointed out to me by a journalist. But I guess there is something about just ... a lot of the material I chose has a certain sensibility to highlight or tap into. There's a sort of disruptive feeling about it. So maybe that particular moment in history was characterized by a lot of disruption. In the US, it was the tail end of the Vietnam era, post '60s, the Black Power Movement. It was a disruptive time—Watergate, a lot of crazy stuff going on. I think you've heard it reflected in the music."

It was also an important time for R&B and similar music. "I think the backbone particularly of Afro-American music in the '70s was really strong. Earth Wind And Fire, and with the rise of the Jacksons—really good stuff, really. Stevie Wonder of course." Though some may lament an emphasis, in the later '70s, of disco in popular music, Iyer also points out the quality flow-on there. "(In) the disco era, the musicianship involved with that music came from R&B and soul. There's a connection, I guess, even to disco (laughs)."

The time also saw an increasing influence of West African music. Hemphill's classic album Dogon AD (Freedom, 1972), from which the Hemphill cover comes, was inspired by the historic and harmonious Dogon people of Mali, whose languages can involve pitching when speaking, to change the word. The album has Hemphill's alto sax and flute, trumpet, cello and drums; the unusual instrumentation itself represents an amping up of the music of the times.

The strong interest throughout the longer tracks, their internal strength, is analogous to that of evolving "classical" pieces. Iyer explains his structuring of the music, providing composerly clues, when he says, "I like to work with small ideas that are extendable. Rather than create long runs, (I) think in terms of small chunks, very much in the way that Monk did."

In "Historicity," among other musical choices, he sets up a repeated figure, raising and lowering it chromatically, to enable moves to different keys. Of this, he says, "It sounds like the melody moves up a half step and the root moves down a half step. You might hear that. All the pieces are different. Each piece that I write tends to have a certain ... it's almost like it's a structural problem I'm trying to work out ... not to make too much of it." Structure is an important element of Iyer's music, and much of his focus is on building structure through rhythmic concepts, in addition to the more traditional Western extension of small melodic units or the use of key changes (or shifts in tonal area). He certainly draws on rhythmic concepts from his investigation into Indian classical talas (rhythmic structures), from West African ideas, from numeric relationships found in nature, and no doubt from his exposure to the concept of "M Base" developed by, among others, Iyer's early mentor, trumpeter Steve Coleman
Steve Coleman
Steve Coleman

He adds, "The two long tracks of mine, 'Historicity' and 'Trident'—part of the reason they are so long is because we are stretching out on them as players, and I think that's where the meat of the music comes from. The way I think as a composer is more: 'How can I create a situation that will allow that process to take place?,' and those two pieces are pieces that have actually been played for quite a while.

"'Historicity' (the tune) was written five years ago. It's transformed over the years, in terms of what the trio has done to it. That's why it has these ... chapters. It's because each section has kind of blossomed into its own thing now. So what was originally meant to be miniature has grown like a fungus (laughs). ... (It) ballooned out.

"It was conceived initially as a sort of diptych, two main sections, then I found out a fragment of the first section becomes a part of another section. What you hear at the very beginning of the record is a fragment, that fragment, so we're cycling a small piece of the main form. And it also has a sort of sequel structure to it. There is a mathematical order to the durations, like a harmonic rhythm, I guess you could say. And it has also an AAB (form), a form reminiscent of blues, though harmonically it is very different to what we associate with blues.

"And the harmonies are ... piece-specific. It would be hard to give them chord names (like) 'Ab major.' Usually when I write music, it has harmonic progressions in it—I just don't write them out. I notate the chords. They can still be varied, but rather than giving them a name, I just put the pitches down on the page. And they can be varied from that. If you put down a pop symbol (like) G minor 7, they're going to resort to their G minor 7. ... (It) provokes cliches, and I am actually not into hearing (that)."

He refers to Monk as an example: "I think a lot about Thelonious Monk—he has a very specific take. When you hear his music and when you hear him play someone else's music, you hear really particular sonorities that seem like he spent a lot of time searching for and finding ... these very specific sounds. And I've always been really inspired by anything he's done but particularly that quality that he has (where) you really feel like every sound he makes is his, (that) it's something that he discovered or invented or found. I wanted to see if I could strive for that level of inventiveness—(it's) something to strive for. It's something that might take my life to get even close to that. You may as well set high bars for yourself."

Iyer also describes the opportunities of live performance. He says of improvisation in this context, "It's about discovering something. Part of what I value about the live experience is this process of discovery or ... I don't want to say revelation in the religious sense, but "revelation" meaning "revealing." That process involves everybody. The difference between sitting in a practice room and developing something that works on that small scale between you and the instrument and then ... the experience of putting it out in front of people is... not just to display, but to connect. That's what music is for, really. It's for connecting us. I think it's a basic fact about why we have music in our lives. It's because it connects us."

The second of his two longer tunes on the album, "Trident," has appeared twice before on Iyer's albums, in different guises. "Trident" begins with a descending phrase of whole tones that may provide a ready jumping off point for improvisation. He says, "I guess that the melody is one thing—maybe that's something that ends up anchoring or bookending the whole piece. But what I find to be the most inspiring part is what happens when we are not playing that melody, for me as a player, and even as a listener inside the music... it's simple enough and open enough that we can stretch and push it pretty hard. I think (like) Coltrane on 'Transition' or some of those albums where composition-wise ... I don't want to say (it's) an excuse, but (it's) sort of a stimulus for the ensemble to get somewhere. And then they would take it pretty far (from) a real small amount of the compositional material. They're able to push it into something really unified and extremely expressive.

"So that's what I mean about this piece: it's just about the balance of structural content and openness that makes that possible. There's enough to hang your hat on as a player and also as a listener. But also, there's as far to go as you want to go (laughs)." A further example from Coltrane, this time from early in his solo career, may be the emphasis on the ninth note played at the beginning of the title track of his album Blue Trane (Blue Note, 1957). It provides an impetus for invention.

Iyer explains the influence of piano trio albums such as Duke Ellington's ground- breaking album Money Jungle, made with Mingus and Roach. Of Money Jungle, he says "It was certainly one of my points of reference. The material is pretty different and the way things are orchestrated is pretty different, but I think just the way that record really comes to life—you really hear the people and the music and you hear their sensibilities. So it's not about making something that sounds sweet that goes down smooth, it's about presence. It seems to surpass music in a way. Somehow, that album is deeper than music (laughs). It's not about the sound and pretty songs. It's about people doing things—just allowing that to be heard, in a way, to make it about action. And I think also there's a certain darkness to the way things are arranged on Money Jungle, which I really like: a lot of low-register stuff, a lot of contrapuntal stuff and sometimes what feels like chaos. It's quite ordered, actually—but that title track is a great example. It seems like it's about to explode or something.

"We were even joking in the recording session—it was probably in (Stevie Wonder's) 'Big Brother' actually, because, (and) I've said this elsewhere, there's a danger with that song. If you're playing an instrumental version, you can lose the significance of the song. It's a protest song, a social commentary. It's pretty raw, actually, what it has to say. And so I wanted to really make sure that sensibility was kept in the song even though we transformed it. And so having everything in the low register and having the bass kind of be the melodic (voice), the contrapuntal vocalizing thing that haunts the margins of the piece, that was very much inspired by Money Jungle.

Another major title from Money Jungle is "Fleurette Africaine": "Even (the) piece ... 'Fleurette Africaine,' that has a similar quality in a way, in terms of what Mingus does on it—where he places himself in the ensemble and also the dialogue between the drums and the piano, the way that Ellington orchestrates it on the piano, the way he fills up the space. It's a total statement."

It may be possible to describe such communicative music (Ellington, Hendrix and Wonder, for example) as being a kind of philosophy instead of just the music itself: Iyer says, "I wouldn't say 'instead.' They're the same thing. It's music as philosophy. It's music as discourse."

Given his frequent use of words such as "discourse," it may be that as a first- generation American, he is particularly conscious of the need to bridge worlds. He says, "It could be in the sense that a lot of my life as an American has been about difference and about how to navigate difference or bridge difference: particularly in the sense of not necessarily being seen as someone who is at home or who belongs in a given part of American culture, more as someone who has to always be interacting with it as if from the outside. It's something that comes up a lot, I guess. It's not that I'm always perceived that way or that I always have that experience, but it keeps coming back. And so maybe that sustained experience that I've had has informed my overall sensibility as a listener and as a player, as a composer."

A further major musical influence on Iyer is New York pianist Randy Weston and his African Rhythm Trio (notable for the use of African drums rather than conventional Western drums). "I hadn't heard him until I was in my early twenties, I'd say," Iyer says. "I was in the Oakland-San Francisco area for most of the '90s and those were formative years for me, basically my early twenties, and it was around then I remember hearing him. It must have been around '94. I heard his African Rhythms Trio. He still does this project, an ongoing piano bass and hand drums (trio), which to me was sort of a revelation, in the broad sense of the word. It hit me really hard ... (when) I heard that sound, and the particular sensibility he brought to that sound. It seemed like a real reinvention of the trio, where everybody was somehow a percussionist. Also the way that he brought a sensibility from African drumming to the piano—there was this real ... dialogue with that heritage and it was also, not just abstractly, made flesh through the interaction with the hand drums in the ensemble. So, that sound really grabbed me, and the sensibility behind it, the very inspiring way that he deals with African heritage in music.

"It led me to think a little bit more specifically about how I might deal with the rhythmic and drumming tradition from India, at the piano specifically—to really see if I could integrate some of that information into how I play the piano."

Bassist Crump also has, at times, a very percussive approach to the bass: "We really think as a rhythm section as much as we do as a standard trio. A lot of our points of reference are from the last 40, even 50, years of funk and soul and R&B and rock ... Hendrix('s) Band of Gypsys, that's a point of reference, Sly And Robby, that's a point of reference, the Earth Wind and Fire rhythm section, and Bernard Purdie, and James Brown—that kind of way of playing, and even the idea of doing "Mystic Brew," that's a particular kind of take on the rhythm section. Or the Meters, (they) are another big point of reference for us.

"When you listen to that whole history, of which the jazz (piano) trio is a part, it goes beyond that: it's really about counterpoint, orchestration and groove and texture, all these things that are not really about soloing over tunes. It's actually something much deeper than that and more immediate, in a way. I think we are all equally inspired by that stuff and that really informs the sound of the group."

Another aspect of Weston is his focus on the low and the high ends of the piano, something that Iyer is also partial to: "He, like Duke Ellington and Monk, dealt with the extremes of the piano and to a really inspiring effect, to a really profound, moving effect. You know it's not just a stunt. It's actually integrated into how he hears music. For the listener, it presents you with a different way of hearing things. A lot of so-called jazz pianists, they do that stock thing of comping with their left hand in the middle register and soloing in the soprano register. And for me, I hear melody where I hear my own voice, which is in the baritone register. (Laughs.) So if you listen to our version of "Big Brother" or to some of these other tunes, even the last tune on the album, that kind of ephemeral ballad piece we do at the end ('Segment for Sentiment #2'), I play the melody way down in what we call 'the basement.' (Laughs.) The low register of the piano—I hear a lot of that range and ... maybe it's also something that you hear in hip-hop music as the 'low end theory,' the title of a famous album [The Low End Theory (Jive, 1991) by A Tribe Called Quest]. Really, that bottom end hits you; it grabs you physically."

As a child, Iyer used to squeeze in and play the bass notes while his older sister practiced piano, but this is not necessarily what fashioned a liking for the low end. He continues: "I think what it is (is that) I like to use the full range of the instrument. The different ranges have different ways of impacting us. I find that there's so much you can do with the instrument besides the stock things people do, and I just really try to deal with the whole history of the instrument. I mean, also, everything that's possible with the instrument, and really just try to explore the full sonic power of this ensemble, of the trio. How much polyphony can we achieve with three people, with six, or I guess, twelve limbs, if you really get down to it? (Laughs.) What are the textural extremes? Roscoe Mitchell said, 'You need to have opposites in your music.' That's really encapsulated (it) pretty well for me. Having played with him for a bit over the years, I've found in practice what that means, what that can mean in his ensembles.

"Over the scope of one concert or even within one piece in time (you) can explore these very different extremes. It doesn't have to all be sweet and white (laughs), and it also doesn't have to all be low end groove stuff either. You can have the full range."

A notable track on the new album is "Galang" by MIA, (the hip-hop artist and composer, real name Maya Arulpragasam, now resident of Brooklyn). "Galang" was a worldwide hit, and the trio brought all their ingenuity to the reworking. Again, Iyer uses the full range of the keyboard to convey the passion of the original. MIA was a girl when her father and her family were on the run from government forces in Sri Lanka's long-running civil war, and the original has numerous sonic references to battle, including what are clearly explosions and arms fire.

Iyer calls his version the "Riot Version." He says of the qualification, "It's not the original. You know, it's our version of it. It's sort of like when people do remixes, they often give a name to their remix, (like) the 'Acoustic Trio Remix' of Galang. I think also it became that unexpectedly, in terms of the intensity that it developed. I didn't expect that ... to happen. We found it really in the studio. We found that it could do that, especially on that coda section where on the original she sort of sings like a banshee (laughs) with that howling line she does at the end of the original song—you can't do that on a piano. You can't even come close to that, so I had to find something else that I could do that would evoke that but would still drive the ensemble in a way that would at least keep the momentum going. So it's not just the melody—it has to be something else that is very specific to the trio, to the piano ensemble. But then that ends up driving into this almost punk rock kind of vibe that I thought was kind of funny and interesting and exciting.

"I remember doing so many takes of the ending of that piece, because it's actually really hard to do that on the piano. I was trying to find a way to do it that worked, that acquired the right amount of intensity and power, that was (playable). It's physically just hard to keep those arpeggiative things up to that level and jump round while doing it. It's very awkward (on) the instrument. But I kind of just discovered it, how to do it in the course of many takes of it, and then it ended up setting off the music in a way that I didn't expect, so it was a kind of fortuitous discovery."

The trio retained the same key as the original. "We tried to be faithful to the original to some degree, though I found also that as a pianist I couldn't imitate her rapping (laughs)—it's not, even: it has this kind of sing-songy, almost taunting quality to it. And I couldn't really do that on the piano, nor would I really want to. It was almost when someone makes a mix tape and they rhyme over someone else's song (laughs). She's doing that. So this is sort of like that: 'Well, OK, this is that groove with me kind of taking a verse over that, or something like that.' But (we were) also trying to evoke the hook, or the chorus, of the song. You do hear that. It was sort of an experiment: 'Well, what happens when we put the sound of the trio into contact with this thing that is so seemingly alien to the sound of the piano trio?' See if we can approach it at all levels.

"We transcribed the drum machine parts and said, 'OK, can this all be played on the drum set at once?" Marcus tried it and he found that he could. He messed with the sound of the drums, particularly (the) cymbals he used. He stacked a couple of cymbals to get a dry kind of dense sound on one. He actually put some sheet music on the snare drum to kind of deaden it a little bit. So he got this kind of studio rock or funk kind of sound. It's sort of like the Quincy Jones snare drum sound (laughs), the kind you hear on Off The Wall [(Epic, 1979), by Michael Jackson] or something.

"And then, how do you get the analog synth bass sound that they have on there? Well, create some hybrid timbre between the arco bass and a fifth in the piano—will that do it? So we were just checking it out to see if we could evoke that—all the different elements in the song.

"There's like a TR-808, it's an 808 percussion sound, (so) I used that high D# as a sort of percussion, like a little clave sound, that little 'ding ding ding' thing that happens. (It) only happens a couple of times in the original, but I liked it and wanted it to be featured more on our version. Then, because that's pitched, it sort of complicates the 'minor-ness' of the (piece)!"

Given the power and variation in this recording, "Galang" (or Iyer's version of it) just may become a jazz standard.

The fifth track on the album is Hill's "Smokestack," the title track from the album Smokestack (Blue Note, 1963). Hill recorded a series of influential and innovative albums in the '60s with artists such as Eric Dolphy, and was described by Blue Note founder Alfred Lion as his final big discovery. Smokestack itself featured Roy Haynes on drums, as well as two bassists. Hill's style includes strong flavors of Powell and Monk, two influences equally present in Iyer's music.

Hill himself had a strong presence in Iyer's life, having befriended and supported Iyer from the '90s. Iyer says, "He's been a pretty major force in my life as a player, as a composer and as a person. I was deeply influenced by him and was fortunate to be friends with him, and he was very kind and accommodating with me. And he ended up becoming a sort of advisor for me, especially early on, when I first moved to town, in New York 11 years ago. And then I found out also, after he passed, that he was really in my corner to a degree that I hadn't realized, in the sense that he actually spoke about me to a lot of people in the industry and in his family and among his friends—they all seemed to know of me because of him. It was a surprise for me, the extent of it. I remember I went to his memorial service here in New York expecting to be just another face in the crowd, and it turned out that everyone in his family knew me. He held me in that kind of regard. That, to me, in a way ... that is the greatest compliment I could ever receive."

Of "Smokestack," Iyer says, "I've always found that particular track really inspiring. There was something really mysterious about that whole album Smokestack. Maybe it's the particular combination, the chemistry of that ensemble with Roy Haynes and Richard Davis
Richard Davis
Richard Davis
and Eddie Khan, two bassists, and the rhythm section seems like it's kind of exploding. So I've always found that sound to be really intoxicating. Definitely (it) has a kind of profound mystery to it."

Another very influential album of Hill's was Point of Departure (Blue Note Records, 1964): Dolphy is a soloist on the record. Iyer continues, "That was probably the first music I heard of his—I think it was one of the first CDs I bought when I got a CD player—I was a little bit late to the table with that! But I remember I went to the store and I got two CDs. (They were Dolphy's) Out To Lunch (Blue Note, 1964) and that. It was good use of the CD player, the new system, because the sound was so rich and evocative and everybody has such a real personal approach to their instruments that it's timbrally really special. (They have) this vivid clarity on (them) that is inspiring. And Andrew in particular, I would say—the sound he got on the piano was one of his main signatures: the depth ... the way he was able to cut through the texture of the drums in just the right way to be heard. That's the connection to Monk, I would say—it's a timbral one."

Powell himself could have an electric, tense, energized feel. The recording of Powell at the famous Massey Hall concert with Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Charles Mingus and Max Roach—Jazz At Massey Hall (Debut, 1953)—includes a long version of "All The Things You Are," where Powell seems to be exploring as though he is in a forest, feeling his way through the terrain. Iyer: "It's a good evocation of what's happening. There's all this discovery. And he's so sure footed with the time ... the rhythm is really centered. He's able to be really expressive and still be really grounded at the same time. That's what we all strive for."

Classical Influences

Bud Powell was influenced by (earlier) classical pianist-composers. Iyer has said that he listens to the sequence of what he calls "French parlor music," beginning with Chopin. Chopin has of course had a major influence on many musicians, from composer Alexander Scriabin to Dave Brubeck. Brubeck has performed live "tributes" to Chopin, and the signature figure of his "Blue Rondo A La Turk" is close to the beginning of Chopin's Etude Opus 25 No 8 in Db major. The Preludes are well-known, but the Etudes may yield far greater depths. Singer Barry Manilow crafted a hit single ("Could It Be Magic?") from a Chopin prelude, leaving the music virtually unchanged. Chopin is also notable for his occasional use of the extreme pitches of the piano.

Jazz artists have listened to classical music from the beginning: stride piano legend Willie "The Lion" Smith played bass lines that resembled Chopin (the Etudes are a source), and Duke Ellington wrote trumpet sections that at times echoed the trumpets in Scriabin's 1907 orchestral work "Poeme d'Extase." And it is sometimes possible to spot in Iyer's work a Scriabin-like passage of playing or, in one case, a sound not dissimilar to later piano works of composer Elliott Carter.

There is also an interesting classical link to the new Iyer album: Julius Hemphill ("Dogon AD") was married to pianist Ursula Oppens, who gave a special Elliott Carter recital in 2008 in New York in the presence of the composer. At an Oppens concert of Hemphill music, a reviewer wrote of one piece: "'Parchment,' played by the pianist Ursula Oppens, with flowing bitonal lines, was straight-up post-Debussy classicism."

Iyer says, "She plays a lot of his (Hemphill's) music. It's like I said earlier. (I'm) trying to deal with the whole history of the piano, what's possible with the piano. You soon find, if you spend a enough time at the piano, that there are actually certain things that work that a lot of composers have found and re-found, re- discovered, so I try to remain aware of that whole history of the piano, especially as a composer writing for the instrument. (I'm) trying to think, 'What have people found that works on the piano? What can get a big sound out of the instrument? Can you arrange things to take full advantage of what it can do?'

"But I am also interested in composers who ... I'd say one of my favorite composers of the 20th century is Ligeti. (There's) a lot of polyphony, a lot of structural rigor and ... the composition becomes the working through of a structural question or structural problem. The piano etudes are a classic example. He was also virtuosic with ensemble writing. The piano concerto is a good example. The amount of different colors and surprising kinds of synchronies and surprising using of timbres that you wouldn't (expect), the way he used the ensemble, I found very inspiring. He's thinking, not just making interesting sounds.

"There's always some kind of conceptual logic that animates it. That's something that really inspires me. It could be a structural idea. And also the string quartets—you see how he orders things. It's actually quite systematic, even though it gives rise to this dazzling variety of sounds. At its heart, when you look at it on the page, it's actually quite methodical how things can build or how density accumulates. It moves step-by-step, and you can really see the steps very clearly if you look at the score. So just that kind of thought process behind the work, that is very clear—there's clarity in it. That, I think, is inspiring.

"I recently also, a couple of years back, saw (mathematician Benoit) Mandelbrot speak. He's a mathematician (who is) associated with fractals. (A fractal is) that kind of daisy-wheel object that you zoom in on, or those sort of paisley shapes that you zoom in on a corner of it (and) you see the same thing all over again—these "M set" images. He made full-color coffee table books 20 years ago with these images in them—he made millions just off those books. He was friends with Ligeti. I saw him speak and he said something about how Ligeti came to learn about fractals. Basically, he saw something about it that resonated with his own music, which was this idea of degrees of order on different timescales in the music—kind of micro-polyphony, as he called it—like a lot of very intricate small scale behavior in the ensemble. But then there would also be larger events that you could hear as events. Then those would accumulate into phrases and sections and the overall shape of a piece.

"And he found that attention to levels of order at all those different timescales would help him as a composer. And, basically, that his best pieces had the right time balance between micro-polyphony (the very small-scale short detail) and middle-range order and large-scale order, so that (there is) a very composerly sensibility about the overall shape of a piece. That is something that really inspires me.

"And, of course, when you're dealing with music that's meant for improvisers, a lot of that order is arrived at collectively. So then I'll try to think about, well, 'How can I structure the process in just the right way to achieve that kind of balance for the ensemble?' That's something I think about quite a bit."

Ligeti is not the only modern composer that Iyer listens to: "There are lots of other composers I could rattle off: Messiaen, Magnus Lindberg and some of the spectralists like Tristan Murail, Gerard Grisey, Kaija Saariaho, very recent European 'superstars,' I guess. I'm very fond of Bartok and I learned a lot from Stravinsky and from Schoenberg and that stuff. And I do actually find some things of value in the minimalists, although I'm not so directly influenced by them. I find that I arrived at some similar techniques through my own means."

In some of Iyer's previous work, there may appear, briefly, arpeggios and other figures repeated in a quasi-Philip Glass style. Iyer says, "I don't think it is fair to let Glass own arpeggios! It's, (as) I said earlier, what works at the piano. Well, that's something that works at the piano, because it's rhythm and harmony and melody at the same time. That's what it is. It creates momentum. But it also sets up a sonority.

He explains in more detail: "If you listen to the beginning of the album Re- imagining, it's not just arpeggios. It's about a running counterpoint for the piano, which I found (to be) a different approach to playing chords, especially in a quartet setting. Comping with chords has its own pitfalls and limitations. Instead, creating a counterpoint line that ran through the entire piece—that set up certain kinds of intensity and momentum and (which) also set up the harmonic spaces in a way—was transparent enough that you could hear all the polyphony. The thing about a lot of chords is that they can cloud the sound of the music. They take up a lot of space in the music. This more linear stuff I was doing—these cycling, arpeggiative (figures) and that kind of contrapuntal stuff—I found just made the music more transparent, which helped clarify. So I still use that technique a bit."

Some of Iyer's work, particularly the latest Fieldwork album Door (Pi Recordings, 2008), could be considered avant-garde music, and Iyer occasionally tours as pianist with avant- garde musicians Roscoe Mitchell and Wadada Leo Smith. He doesn't think he himself is particularly avant- garde: "If Monk was avant- garde ... (laughs). I don't know what any of these things mean, because it totally just depends on what you're used to. Certainly, compared to Roscoe Mitchell I'm not avant-garde! I mean, I'm saying this as someone who has worked in his band for years. He has this incredible radically inventive sensibility that pervades everything he does.

"I'm endlessly inspired by him in that way ... because of that. To me, he's one of the deepest ones out there, in terms of just really thinking for himself. I mean, wow, just stunningly so. And because of that, (he's) finding things that nobody would have ever imagined possible with the instrument he plays or with the ensembles he (has). Some of the most incredible music I've ever heard has been just sitting on stage playing with him. I remember one gig in particular. It was in Rome with the quintet, on the first tour I did with him. He queued up the whole ensemble so it just broke down to him playing solo soprano saxophone, and he built something in the course of maybe 12 minutes that I'll never forget. It was one of the most incredible things I've ever seen—the ways he's able to work with the real fundamentals of sound.

"The thing about these guys—I would talk about (trumpeter) Steve Coleman in similar terms (and about) Wadada Leo Smith, who I also work with, in similar terms—these guys are all probably seen as avant-garde in different ways. I'd say that they're just really radically creative. They work with the fundamental building blocks of music and sound. And it's also to assist the momentum of something good and create. They have aesthetics, but they don't have any stylistic assumption about how something should sound. They have more a very other-worldly guiding sensibility about how to put music together.

"So I just learned so much from being around those people, who are just incredible thinkers, and they've achieved so much that I find to be so important for the history of music. If that makes me avant-garde then fine, but I'm more just inspired by them. If people call Ligeti an avant-garde composer, well they're dealing in similar terms but ... there are some people who think that jazz is supposed to be this kind of happy, entertaining, casual, non-serious thing. I guess none of the people I've worked with have thought that way, so I guess I'm just influenced by that whole other side—you know, basically the composerly creative tradition in this music."

Iyer's university studies have been partially in mathematics. Another composer Iyer lists as an influence is Arnold Schnittke, who at times utilized seemingly arbitrary means to underpin his compositions, such as historic numeric representations of the Earth's form.

Iyer comments: "A lot of composers resort to non-musical methods to generate material, and I don't think that there's anything out of the ordinary about that. It's actually so common that it's ... we shouldn't make too much of it when we hear those kinds of things. I think from the outside, we tend to have this anxiety about art and science—some unholy alliance between art and science. I just think that the basic work of putting things together, whether it's architecture or music or carpentry or whatever, you need to measure things (laughs). You know, you need to come up with things that fit and they need to have duration and they need to have quantitative value. When you cook, you use measuring spoons and measuring cups. You could say you're doing math: you're adding and subtracting and multiplying, whatever, but ... I think too much can be made of that. We tend to act as if it's so alien to artistic experience, but it's actually just the nuts and bolts of the process, and that's true in so many disciplines.

"I mean, poets write in meter. When poets write in meter, there's a mathematical logic to that. Or if you go back to the sonata form, it's about dealing with formal constraints and using that to inspire you in a way that you might not ordinarily (be inspired). Have you ever sat down and tried to write a sonnet or a quatrain [a stanza of poetry consisting of just four lines] or even a haiku? Just because of the constraints of the situation, you're forced to invent something that works (laughs). It just forces you to make a choice that you might not have ever otherwise made, and that puts you on the path to discovery. That's all that's about.

"So the use of mathematics to create music is not a big deal. There are twelve tones. We have eighth notes and quarter notes and half notes and dotted half notes and so on. You know there is number in music and it's just not a big deal (laughs), because basically it's so omnipresent in music that ... it's dangerous to exaggerate its newness or something like that. Something's there that everybody does. I think it gets linked to me a lot because I have a background in math and science. And it doesn't get linked to Coltrane very much, but Coltrane probably worked as hard as I do or harder than I do at quantitative things, with intervals and with working through the logic of "Giant Steps," for example. He studied and worked and dealt with the craft of the music, as everybody knows, all day long (laughs). It's the basic way that we create."

Iyer also describes how orders of Fibonacci numbers, the symmetries of numbers that are so often reflected in nature, are behind the (harmonic) rhythm of some of the pieces on Historicity. "There's something about the way that those numbers (55 and 34) work that creates a certain asymmetry, but you can also divide them into smaller Fibonacci components, so that can create these different kinds of symmetries ... but it's always an odd symmetry. That's the point.

"For example, the number 8 would always resolve into 3, 2 and 3 and that's the symmetric division of 8, but it's not duple. So, in a 3,2 3 number relationship there is still a balance, as 3 is on either side of the 2 in the center." As with Indian tala, much of Iyer's music is structured using these numeric relationships. He continues, "There's a lot of that, particularly in the rhythmic domain. In fact, (with the track) 'Historicity,' the harmonic rhythm follows that logic. 'Trident' has that order in it. Or our version of 'Mystic Brew' has that order in it as well, so it's sort of everywhere (laughs)."

Recent musicians have focused more and more on rhythm. Another example is M-Base, an approach of improvising music associated with one of Iyer's Bay Area influences, (Steve) Coleman, among others. M Base is described by Coleman himself as an approach to "spiritual, rhythmic and melodic development." Coleman also says that it is a concept that "arises from Africa and the African diaspora." But a particular aspect of M-Base is rhythm: Wikipedia says, "One of (M-Base's) most noticeable musical traits is the innovative use of overlapping rhythmic cycles of various lengths inside of which the participants improvise, giving the music an unpredictable form." Thus we see an increasing use of "new" sources of ideas for creating music, which are really just an example of, as Iyer would say, "paying due attention to rhythm."

At the top of Iyer's Myspace page, there is just one word to describe his Myspace status: the word "yes." This was the same word that John Lennon saw on a piece of paper after climbing a ladder—as he told the story—when he visited an exhibition by Yoko Ono in 1966 (the day they met). Iyer says, "I think at some time I needed to change my status, so I changed it to something that seemed inviting and affirming, just something that would hit you in such a simple way that you wouldn't really have to question it. Maybe I saw (the Lennon story) depicted in some docu-drama about John Lennon and Yoko Ono. I remember seeing that piece somewhere, maybe it was on TV—the "yes piece" (laughs)—(in the final scene) we see a card that says 'yes.'

"But there is that deceptive simplicity in Yoko's art that I really like. On the surface, it can come off as idealistic (in) this hippy dippy kind of way, but actually ... it's conceptually very pure and clean, the way she puts these works together. I kind of like it."

Indian Classical Music

Through his career, Iyer has also been absorbing Indian classical music and its forms. His early (childhood) years in Rochester, New York exposed him to Indian music at community functions, but it was in the Oakland/San Francisco Bay area, when he was pursuing university studies, that he was able to participate in a greater amount of organized Indian community musical events. He says of Indian music and its ideas, "It is a very important component for me in how this music is put together. But it won't tell you the whole story. I also often get asked what about my music is Indian, (but I) find that usually people who ask that question are usually people who don't know very much about Indian music."

Iyer explains how rhythm is played in South Indian music (his parents are from southern India, which has a different kind of music from the north, the home of sitars and Ravi Shankar). In all Indian music, the "tala" is the rhythmic pattern, and the "raga" is the melodic pattern. To Western ears, Indian ragas tend to appear long. Iyer says, "They are not always very long—it's as much a matter of tempo as anything else. Tala fulfills the role that meter does in Western music. It's just the cyclical backbone of the music. I don't want to say there's nothing mysterious about it because music basically is mysterious, but there's nothing in the tala tradition that is unknowable or immeasurable. There are time cycles and then there are ways of building rhythmic forms across these time cycles. There's a kind of culminatorial logic to creating rhythms. There's sort of a rhythmic solfege that's used. So there is a sort of mathematical logic behind it, in the sense of combining durations of time in an additive way.

"The rhythms are in and across the cycles and over multiple cycles. So there can be very long serial rhythms that resolve over many cycles. (This is) the percussion tradition within Carnatic music (Carnatic music is the classical music of South India, as contrasted with Hindustani music in the North). When they get to take over—in every concert they have a moment to themselves—the whole percussion section gets to do their thing, and it often will take a good 30 or 40 minutes to work out. So there is that kind of thing that happens, but that's like the nuts and bolts of the rhythmic science of that music pushed as far as that can go, which is very far. If you use those commentorial ideas, you can build these very elaborate structures.

"But it generally lives over some basic cyclic tala, meaning some meter that is a group of beats of some fixed duration that keeps coming back around, just like we're used to 4/4 in the West. They're used to that in Indian music too, and they're also used to different kinds of sevens and different kinds of fives and so on. And then there (are) also longer versions of it that are sort of half time."

Iyer points out that Western musicians have developed in a world where melody and harmony have been given precedence over rhythm: "The thing is, it's been a tradition (Indian music) that has paid due attention to rhythm. I guess what I would say is that Western classical music has somehow made that secondary or almost tertiary in importance. Perhaps why it seems so alien to a Westerner is because it's so worked out. I'd say the same thing could be said about a lot of African music, African drumming—West African and Central African ensemble music. It has that same level of deep rhythmic sophistication that Westerners just aren't used to hearing (laughs). Westerners have twelve tone(s) and stuff like that, which most other people in the world aren't used to hearing."

Among other projects, Iyer works with an Indian group called Tirtha, a trio of Iyer, guitarist Prasanna and percussionist Nitin Mitta. One of the tracks on Tirtha's Myspace page is named "Tribal Wisdom." The track begins with, to a Westerner, an unusual, complex counting-in: "That's an example of what I was talking about," says Iyer. "That's a composition by the guitarist Prasanna. He's a very accomplished Carnatic guitarist and also a composer in the Western sense. He writes stuff for jazz ensemble and classical groups and so on. The way it begins is with a korvai, which is the rhythmic cadential formula—like I said, it's ... intricate additive rhythms that stretch across multiple cycles of more basic meter.

"The Carnatic tradition is a song tradition, a repertoire of songs by established composers. They call (them) the 'trinity' of great composers, from the 18th Century. These different songs are set to different talas and different ragas and so forth, and they have devotional lyrics that are quite specific Indian songs in Tamil and Telegu, which are the South Indian languages. Everything is built around the songs. There is the whole raga tradition—each raga has its own melodic character to it: not just the notes themselves but how one moves between the notes. What Carnatic music has in common with Hindustani, or North Indian, music is (that) the structures of ragas and talas are similar. There's quite a lot of overlap in that, but the repertoire and the way it's performed is (region)-specific. This set of repertoire, this devotional music, (is) performed in a certain way (with) particular nuances of how one moves through the ragas. It's very systematic, it's very formally rigorous, I would say. It's very ornate, it's also very melodic, but it's all created to perform these songs which are devotional songs and to reveal the structure of the ragas and of the talas and so forth."

But this contrasts with Hindustani music: "I think a lot of Hindustani music will often start from empty space. It's more open, in that sense. It's not structured around a pre-existing composition, or if it is, it's often around a folk melody or something that's not quite as elaborate. It's often like you're basically revealing the beauty of the raga itself over a long period of time. So the raga isn't so much in service of the song—it's more that the piece is the raga and how you work with the raga.

"So I think it's just a different order of priorities, but both of them have this sense of revealing the beauty of the structure of the ragas. People often ask, 'What does Indian music have in common with jazz?' Of course, they're both improvising traditions, but I think in Indian music you're not improvising for yourself. It's not about telling your own story, it's about revealing this divine order that exists in music, that music contains. And that becomes a metaphor for the divine order in the universe, so it's about connecting. It's spiritual music, in that sense."

Improvisation becomes structure. "Yes," says Iyer, "you're working with form, you're revealing form, you're showing the beauty of form. And that process is a devotional act. It's a form of prayer, basically. People who give their lives to Carnatic music, they're almost like monks and nuns. (Avasarala) Kanyakumari is a good example. She's a violinist. You may know her from her work with Kadri Golpanath. They worked together on Rudresh's album Kinsmen (Pi recordings, 2007). But she is also one of the best teachers of Carnatic music and she, in fact, was Prasanna's teacher. When you interact with her, you see it's devotional for her. The first four hours of every day are given to rituals. And the way of life that she practices is a profoundly spiritual one. That's what (the music) is for, and you get this sense from some of the Hindustani musicians as well. It's a spiritual science—I think that's a good way to encapsulate it. It's very disciplined and rigorous and something larger than yourself."

So What Is Jazz Now?

Younger jazz musicians have a broader range of sources of influence than in earlier days. Many perform in collaborations that are beyond "tenor sax and trumpet." Iyer has referred to this phenomenon—he has noted how "most (musicians) on the jazz 'scene' actually inhabit multiple scenes, with varying relationships to what is called 'jazz.'"

Iyer says, "As a jazz musician, you're expected to know certain things and to not know certain things. And so often you'll surprise somebody—this happens to me a lot—somebody will be surprised that I know a Duke Ellington ballet or a Sibelius symphony or something like that. Basically, they will have an idea that you exist in a certain niche and that you don't know anything outside of that niche. They'll be surprised that I know about some cheesy synth pop band, because I'm not supposed to know that because I exist in some sealed-off jazz universe. And that's just nonsense. We're all in the same space and we all have equal access to the entire archive of digital information, so it's not like one person has privilege over another in terms of their information scan. We all have the same data at our fingertips.

"I think it's just this thing that plagues jazz musicians, in particular. You're seen as (these) kind of charmingly naive, myopic people and that's not what we are. We interact with the world to the same degree that anybody else does."

For example, in August Iyer performed at The Stone, in lower Manhattan, with High Priest aka HPrizm, a member of alternative hip-hop group Antipop Consortium. The performance (available on Youtube) almost gives an impression of jazz piano—or piano, period—entering new electronic worlds. But then, attempting to definitively categorize any part of any given music can be irrelevant to the reality.

"it's not that any bit of it is jazz or is not jazz," Iyer points out. "That has no meaning in a situation like that—a distinction of what is or is not, or should or should not be jazz. It just has no relevance to a collaboration like that, because we're both reaching from everything that we know to rise to the challenge of the occasion, to try to interact and make something work, (to) build something together. It's not hip-hop meets jazz or anything like that. It's just two dudes in a room with their arsenals (laughs), (with their) respective arsenals, trying to make something happen. Especially with those guys (like) High Priest, one of the founding members of Antipop Consortium, one of my favorite groups out there, period.

"They're called a hip-hop group, but their stuff is really hard to categorize. It's really advanced and very visceral. The first time I saw them live was at The Knitting Factory about ten years ago, and it was like seeing the Art Ensemble Of Chicago. It had that real organic quality to it and real compositional sensibility that was really like they're building things from scratch right in front of you with this vast and unlikely arsenal of sounds. They were improvising with drum machines and synthesizers and stuff and making music and rhyming. To me, it was as deep as seeing the Art Ensemble. It was as creative, and they were working with the fundamentals of music. So it's not about 'it's jazz or it is not jazz.' It's that these are creative people working with some profound ideas and very strong aesthetics, building something right in front of you.

"So that's the sensibility that was guiding (me) on that Youtube clip. It's the same kind of thing. It so happens that I play piano mainly, and I was also running some of the electronic beats on my computer and Priest was doing some on his and we were interacting and decorating each other's beats. You are just trying to rise to the occasion, bring something to the table and build something—that's all it is."

Iyer discusses the "traditional" elements of music in this kind of performance: "Well, you have to think about what are the real elements of music: melody, rhythm and harmony ... We're talking about instruments that generate melody and rhythm, but I'm talking about three guys with voices, with words as their arsenal and drum machines and analog synthesizers that make noise, filtered noise. So I wouldn't say it was the most melodic thing I've ever seen, but it was very visceral and elemental. It had a lot of clarity. It had a lot of rhythm, that's for sure, and rhythm is the first thing that hits you when you hear music. It had rhythm and it had vocal performance—whatever you want to call it (laughs)—and it had texture and sonic variety and it was alive. It was unfolding in real time in front of us. They were building it right in front of us from scratch."

Then there is the debate on what is "art music," on what isn't, and, no doubt, on whether something ought to be even be in the ball park for discussion. Iyer says, "I would not make a distinction between so-called jazz and 'art music.' I had this debate with this guy (Terry Teachout). He writes for the Wall Street Journal. He was sort of grousing about how he thinks jazz has become too much of an art music. He seemed nostalgic for the days of Louis Armstrong."

"He, I think, just misleadingly or wrong-headedly characterized that as not art music. When I say 'art music,'" he adds, "I'm not saying that to distinguish it from music that people like (laughs). All I mean is that the guiding sensibility behind it is not so much 'Is this going to sell records?' (laughs), but there's a deeper purpose behind it. That's all, that's all it is. For me, the best art doesn't tell me what to feel. Instead, it creates this field of possibilities that I might explore as to how I might respond. It's not going to force a particular emotion on me but (it) will suggest possibilities, so for me it's about something that creates an experience for the listener to discover and explore and find something. That's all.

"And I think that there's music that's calculated to just have a high impact and (a) superficial impact, like junk food—that's not really meant to be lived with (laughs). I think an example would be what is called 'muzak,' the easy listening music that's meant as background. Another example would be generic club music that is (just sort of) meant as environmental, that is not meant to be listened to directly.

"I think art music is something that is a form of address to the listener. It's music that is discursive in that sense, (music) that's meant to (say), 'I'm trying to tell you something' (laughs). So it means it needs to be listened to and respected on those terms.

"The thing is, we can get into these debates about what is and is not art; (it's) ... kind of in the ear of the beholder—that's sort of an endless question. I don't want to dwell too much on the distinction. I think that it's partially how you listen and how you experience music. Because there are plenty of people who will talk over my music (laughs). Some of my music isn't discursive in the sense of having a beginning middle and end that ... it's not like it's delivering some sermon or something like that. It's often more experiential in the sense that you interact with it as a listener. So I don't really have any grand theories about what is art music and what isn't. I think it emerges in context. It's an experience."

For example, in a video of Iyer and Mahanthappa playing a duet concert (as their duo Raw Materials), they could be (visually) a violinist and pianist at Carnegie Hall as much as they could be two "traditional" jazz musicians on a concert stage.

Saxophonist Mahanthappa has a multicolored approach to the alto sax, and unlike Iyer, displays on his own albums overtly Indian sounds. The album Kinsman (Pi Recordings, 2008) is a rich example, and is made with Carnatic and Carnatic-trained musicians. The album features Kadri Golpanath, the Indian "Emperor of the saxophone." With (Steve) Lehman—Iyer's collaborator in the trio group Fieldwork—Mahanthappa has at times a less usual, clearer or more classical sax sound that is often encountered in jazz recordings, though Iyer explains that the real point is the range of playing, or sounds, that both strive for.

He says, "I think that both of them are very creative with timbre, with the sound itself as well as with the improvising language in terms of notes. They're both very inventive with timbre on the instrument. Maybe because they focus on the range of possibility with timbre, you might hear some of these connections. I don't think I've ever heard Rudresh's alto sound described as pure. ... I feel like these guys put a lot of character into the sound. I think what it is, is that there's more of a vocal quality you'll often hear. When I've heard classical saxophone quartets, you'll get a lot of surprising sounds out of those combinations of saxophones because timbre is one of the expressive parameters—sometimes you feel like you hear something very vocal—it sounds almost brass like—and at other times you hear what sounds like a double reed instrument. There's a whole timbral range the saxophone has. It's a pretty peculiar instrument, really (laughs). Because both of them (Mahanthappa and Lehman) really manipulate timbre very expressively, I think you hear all those possibilities.

"I think of some of the duo stuff that Rudresh and I have done together, if you've heard the album Raw Materials, some of the opening sounds—at the beginning of the album—don't sound like a saxophone. It sounds more like a shehnai; it sounds very vocal—you hear the performance of the tone being manipulated in a way that's very expressive. It sounds like a wail or a cry."

Through Iyer's more recent trio/quartet albums, it is possible to see a semi-rock thread. For example, on his album Blood Sutra (Artist House, 2003), there is a track entitled "Because of Guns (Hey Joe)" which is essentially a reworking of Hendrix's version of "Hey Joe." The track includes a piano walking bass, addressing the distinctive guitar riff figure of Hendrix's. Then, on his next trio album Reimagining, there is the stunning re-creation of John Lennon's "Imagine," cast this time in a minor key context.

Iyer says: "I grew up as a child of the '70s and '80s. And I heard lots of rock and pop and soul, and very early hip-hop and stuff like that. I was really into (Led) Zeppelin and I listened to The Police and Prince—basically people who could play their instruments and who could command a stadium full of people! I loved just the raw simple power of some of that and the way the experience stays with you."

He explains the essential similarity or overlap between genres of music: "Well, none of these things are as far apart as one may think. The music market leads us to believe that these genres or areas of music have nothing to do with one another. But who are the musicians who play with (current popular artists)? For example, the drummer for the Mars Volta, a big prog rock band—this is a good example—he is a gospel and jazz drummer. There's all this Youtube footage of him before he joined the band winning things like 'drumming chops' contests. He came from the Black Church in the Bay Area. So he has these deep roots in gospel and soul music and he's brought this to prog rock. Another example is the people who back up Beyonce. She has this all-female band that she tours with and most of those people are jazz musicians. (Or) Earth, Wind & Fire, some of those guys were in the ACM! It goes on and on ... all this constant dialogue between these different areas of music."

A further issue in music is "bootlegging" by the audience. In the liner notes to Historicity, Iyer includes in his "Special thanks" list "all the people ... (who) bootlegged us." He says, "The point is, I whatever I think of it, it's not going to stop. A lot of them collect these things because they can and because they get a sort of frisson of doing something illegal or something that they're not supposed to do that makes it just a little bit more inviting to them because (of) just the sheer defiance aspect. I guess I have mixed feelings about it. I'm glad the people are hearing us play, because really the fact of the matter is, it's really hard to play in front of people because there aren't many opportunities to do it, especially in the U.S. (There are) really so few places to play, I mean it's alarming, compared to what you have in Europe for example. The opportunities to perform are pretty few and far between.

"I put a lot of time into making the albums sound good. I obviously have no control over what bootlegs sound like. Usually they sound so terrible that I don't feel they are competing with the albums! The albums have that extra quality factor going on—basically it doesn't make your ears bleed when you listen to them! (laughs). But then, on the other hand, people like to hear what happens in the live context, and that often can be pretty different. Making a studio album is one thing, but playing it in a context where everyone is somehow in on the process of discovery and invention—that often creates these special moments that

Collaborations With Mike Ladd

Iyer has gained considerable attention for two collaborations with poet and hip- hop/spoken voice performer Mike Ladd. The first was the album In What Language (Pi Recordings, 2004). The record was a song cycle discussing the effects of globalization. The second was Still Life With Commentator (Savoy Jazz, 2007), described as an "oratorio" about the media coverage of current world events, in particular the Iraq war.

Iyer says of Still Life With Commentator, "One of the threads in that project was the idea of the news media being this new opiate—really something that lulls you to this narcotic haze where you accept these realities that we shouldn't be accepting. But there's also the manic side to it which somehow ends up being a consequence of this 24-hour news situation, because they have to keep generating excitement and interest in things that aren't actually happening.

"The Still Life With Commentator idea is that we've all seen this happen where you have some dire event that's happened or is just about to happen. (There's) a reporter on the scene in front of the camera with a microphone and the backdrop is some extremely neutral-looking locale where supposedly something has happened or something is just about to happen. Usually it's just a door or a farm or an intersection or something—just a place that has no obvious value and they're trying to infuse it with value by just generating chatter—by just filling up the space with noise. So it becomes this anxious hysteria: to try to keep people watching because it's a business, of course. But also it becomes addictive. You feel like you have to watch because things are happening. And we become participants in it too. Since we made that project—it's two years ago (now)—it seems like it's even gotten worse (laughs). It's just reached a whole new level of hysteria.

"That was the hardest thing about that project ... because you can't satirize (this), because they will time and again outdo any exaggerated (satire) (laughs). They sort of self-satirize, because they keep pushing the envelope in terms of what seems permissible, or what seems even acceptable."

Several Fox News programs are described, but CNN and MSNBC are included. A line from Ladd effectively sums up the basic point: "the distance of atrocity, as far away as stars" (from the track "Holocaust Blog").

Most of the music is electronically created. One track, entitled "Blog Mom," features, at one point, a midrange electronic sound that could convey the impression of busy printing presses firing off newspapers (depending on the ear of the beholder). Iyer: "The way that this music was made ... it's computer music. A lot of it is done with ... this whole digital arsenal that seems to augment the ensemble of instruments and voices. It's funny when we perform it live, because it's really hard to know who's doing what a lot of the time because everyone has a computer diddling with something, and it's making something happen but you can't really tell who's doing what.

"In a way, the craft of the piece takes advantage of our symbiosis with digital technology in the same way that the content of the piece does. It's about our relationship with technology. With electronic music, you have this vast palette of possibilities but you have to a bring a composerly sensibility to it or else you can just drown in possibility (laughs). You have to have a sense about how to make things sound the way you want them to sound. You have to have aesthetic, you have to have something in mind so that the electronics don't become the point of the music—they just become a means. There were electronic instruments and computers being performed alongside the more traditional instruments, the piano, the cello and guitar and voice. So all that was part of the ensemble. There's no live drummer on that project. It's all digital (laughs)—beats that we created and manipulated."

Orchestral And Stage Compositions

Iyer completed a commission for his first full orchestral piece, "Interventions" in 2007. The work premiered in March of that year, to excellent reviews. Of classical writing, he says, "It's about the opportunities that come. I was commissioned by an orchestra to do that piece, and I've also written some chamber music for a string quartet and wind quintet. I'd love to do things like that. It takes me outside my immediate comfort zone and makes me learn something. So it's just about when the opportunities come. It takes a lot of time. I think I've never spent as much time on 15 minutes of music as I did to make that orchestra piece (laughs). I took about nine months to make 15 minutes of music."

Iyer also wrote the music for a theatre piece, Betrothed (2007), written and directed by Rachel Dickstein: "The theatre director (Dickstein) is also the choreographer. And I've also written for films and I've done TV music and I've done remixes—I've had a lot of interesting opportunities to do things all over the map. I try to bring my sensibility to each of those situations and really just try to work with the challenge that it presents."

He has plenty of experience with orchestral music, given that he grew up playing violin in classical orchestras. His classical listening now focuses on modern composers, rather than the 19th century repertoire he used to play: "When I do (listen), it's for the composers like some of the composers I mentioned earlier: Ligeti and so forth. I learn from that. But I grew up playing in orchestras—I play violin. I played a lot of it. That sound I know from the inside. When I made that orchestral piece, I checked out a lot of more recent stuff because I wanted to deal with 'What's the modern arsenal that people are dealing with as composers?,' but I don't find myself listening a whole lot to orchestral music nowadays. I guess I tend to like the smaller-scale stuff. That's just where I'm at right now. It's more satisfying to see what people are able to do, how much one can do with how little—that sort of thing (laughs). That's the interesting question to me right now. Maybe it's something about the economy that's making me think this way!"

The Future

Historicity may be the first album Iyer has made that is largely comprised of covers of other writers' tunes, but this step is not necessarily a lasting new direction. He is not committing yet to a particular approach for the next recording. The trio is busy playing to audiences in the next year: "We're doing quite a bit of touring in the coming year, so I'm sure some new possibilities will reveal themselves just through that.

"I have other projects as well in the works. I'm working on a new project with Mike Ladd dealing with (Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans), which is going to come together in the next couple of years. (Working with Ladd) comes together over a pretty long, intensive period, and it's always pretty organic the way it builds, but in this case we really want to work with ... people from the veteran community (and to) try to build something with them, about them and for them.

"All my other collaborations are ongoing as well. Fieldwork is still doing performances and developing new music. My duo with Rudresh is still working quite a bit and we are also hoping to make a second album sometime in the coming years, and I have other collaborations going on—some stuff outside of music even. I'm doing a sound installation with this film maker Bill Morrison (maker of the much lauded avant-garde film Decasia, for example. Morrison has made several films in collaboration with current composers) in an abandoned prison in Philadelphia. So that's coming up next year. He's created this freestanding film work (with) loops and it's about 15 minutes long and I'm creating sound work that goes along with that.

Selected Discography

Wadada Leo Smith, Spiritual Dimensions (Cuneiform, 2009)

Vijay Iyer, Historicity (ACT, 2009)

Vijay Iyer, Tragicomic (Sunnyside, 2008)

Fieldwork, Door (Pi Recordings, 2008)

Vijay Iyer/Mike Ladd, Still Life With Commentator (Savoy Jazz, 2007)

Vijay Iyer/Rudresh Mahanthappa, Raw Materials (Savoy Jazz, 2006)

Vijay Iyer, Reimagining (Savoy Jazz, 2005)

Fieldwork, Simulated Progress (Pi Recordings, 2005)

Vijay Iyer/Mike Ladd, In What Language (Pi Recordings, 2004)

Vijay Iyer, Blood Sutra (Artist House, 2003)

Vijay Iyer, Panoptic Modes (Red Giant Records, 2002)

Fieldwork, Your Life Flashes (Pi Recordings, 2002)

Vijay Iyer, Architextures (Red Giant Records, 1998)

Vijay Iyer, Memorophilia (Asian Improv, 1995)

Photo Credits

Jimmy Katz

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