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Vijay Iyer: Into The Mainstream

By Published: December 21, 2009
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."

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