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Vijay Iyer: Part 2-2

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New York pianist/composer Vijay Iyer may be the musician of 2005. With his remarkable quartet and their fine new CD Reimagining, his collaborative, experimental trio Fieldwork (whose new CD Simulated Progress should turn some heads when it's released in July), his past and future collaborations with spoken-word/experimental hip-hop artist Mike Ladd, and his other ongoing projects, Iyer is undeniably active. He's also very, very good. I spoke with Iyer in Chicago a few hours before his quartet took the stage of the Green Mill for the second of their two-night run.

All About Jazz: Let's talk about Fieldwork, your collaborative trio. What does this band provide for you musically?

Vijay Iyer: It provides a chance to be a part of a collective where everybody is contributing musical ideas, listening to each other and really respecting each other as composers and creators—and really also being committed to the process of collaborative music-making to the point of rehearsing for hours and hours on end. There's nothing else like that in terms of what it brings out of you, and what the end result is and how much you learn about yourself and the possibilities of just—being a human [laughing]. Just being human and being creative. The sorts of projects where it's all about one guy and his ego, everyone else being subordinate to it—I find that over time, they just don't generate dialogue, they don't generate ideas to the same degree. Because people are forced to say yes to some guy. In a group like Fieldwork—to me it's all about process. It's to some extent that truism: the whole is greater than its parts. I remember even with the original version of Fieldwork, we'd be rehearsing some piece that one of us had brought in and we'd just turn it into something else, basically. We'd tape-record it and listen back to it and not even recognize it: "did we just play this? And that's just an incredible feeling which I want to pursue. The idea that we can create something that's larger than ourselves, but mainly that you can create music that contains dynamics that you're not even aware of. I think that's incredible. And I look to all the great collectives, the Art Ensemble [of Chicago] above all. Certainly also Air and Revolutionary Ensemble and even Sun Ra's Arkestra, Duke Ellington Orchestra—stuff where people really were kicking ideas around. Even the great longstanding bands in jazz history like Coltrane's quartet or Ornette's quartet, or the stuff that was happening between Monk and Bird and Max [Roach] and Bud Powell. A scene, you know, when ideas are really flowing back and forth; a lot more is possible.

AAJ: The lineup of the band has changed.

VI: What I'd say about that is that it's really hard in practice to sustain this kind of collective commitment because inevitably other pressures take over. Living in New York, very rarely do you get people to sit down and rehearse for four days in a row for six hours [laughing] or something like that—let alone do that on a regular basis. But that's something that we would do and there's no substitute for that, to what you get to in that process.

AAJ: Not if you want to develop a group mind.

VI: Yeah. I remember when I was first talking to Aaron about this—Aaron Stewart, who's the original saxophonist. He kind of half-jokingly said, "dude, man, that's the rock band ethos. This is jazz. He was being ironic. But it's true in a way. It's a sort of "we're all in this together kind of mentality that you really associate more with rock bands. Fieldwork is a band, really. It's not one guy's band.

AAJ: I think rock bands get that from the fact that they tour a lot. A three-month tour of playing those tunes and having to put up with each other. When they're good bands, they definitely forge a live chemistry that is exciting.

VI: Yeah! Well, you know, part of the reason that we called the new album Simulated Progress is that up 'til recently we hadn't had much opportunity to tour. And yet—well, this is actually something I also got from Cecil [Taylor]. I think it's in the liner notes to Unit Structures or one of his albums from that period. He mentions, like, "well, no one's giving us any gigs so I have to simulate the progress of a working band by rehearsing a lot and treating my home as a workshop. So that's what we did with our rehearsal space. It's only now are we starting to tour and actually take it to a whole other level. I'm really happy with this music we've worked out. I feel like we got into some stuff that I never dreamed of.

AAJ: Simulated Progress hasn't been released yet, has it?

VI: No, it comes out in July.

AAJ: Sometimes with this band it seems like you carry the role of bass playing to some extent. There's no bassist in the group. I hear this in the bass line of "Transgression.

VI: It's funny because that might be the easiest one. So maybe it's a little more clear because, for example, the bass line is more melodic. But yeah, in a way because of that—well, a lot of things happen. When you remove the bassist from the traditional jazz instrumentation, everybody has to think about their roles differently. The whole notion of instrument functionality completely changes; it dissolves, basically, because everybody has to do everything. You have to start from scratch about how you want to fill the musical space. And that's actually been a productive way of proceeding. I think of all the things that the people from the AACM [Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians] would do almost to force themselves to come up with different musical shit. Like [Henry] Threadgill would make a whole record with four flute players. Like who else would have the audacity? Now this [Fieldwork] is a much milder version of that, I guess. But trying to ... really force ourselves to think what it is that we're doing.

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