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Vijay Iyer: Into The Mainstream

By Published: December 21, 2009

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."

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