Vijay Iyer, Part 1-2

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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 start with who you are. You're the child of South Indian immigrants to the United States and you grew up in upstate New York. You originally played violin. What pulled you to the piano and to jazz music?

Vijay Iyer: My sister, who's a few years older, was taking piano lessons; she started at the same time I started violin and so we had a piano in the house from the same time that I started playing violin. So that was already a part of my awareness, and I guess I just started screwing around on her piano when she wasn't practicing. That's just how I started playing piano, basically. I remember that she and I used to improvise duets when we were really little [laughing], and that for me mainly consisted of banging on the lower octave so hard that the instrument actually was shaking. That was really exciting to me. I still do that! And then, I guess in terms of getting into jazz—or this music known as jazz, this tradition—our high school had a jazz ensemble. You know, by the time I got to high school I was playing in rock bands and stuff, as well as playing violin in orchestras. So I was doing a lot of musical activities—the jazz ensemble looked like it was where people had the most freedom. Well, not freedom, necessarily, but—maybe prowess would be the word. That was something I craved, or wanted to find out more about, at least. So I tried out for it and the director said, "well, you don't know anything about this music, but you have a musical sensibility. I like your playing, but you have to learn about voicings and whatnot. He referred me to this local jazz pianist named Andy Calabrese and I studied with him; I think I had two lessons with him. He sort of set some things in motion and then I just starting checking out music from the library and it just built from there.

AAJ: On your second CD Architextures, in the liner notes, you wrote, "the music on this collection ... depicts what I have learned as a member of the post-colonial, multicultural South Asian diaspora, as a person of color peering in critically from the margins of American mainstream culture, and as a human being with a body, a mind, memories, emotions, and spiritual aspirations. That says a very great deal, but could you elaborate on this, and would it apply to the body of work you've produced in the seven years since you wrote those words?

VI: Yeah. It definitely applies. [Reaching for the list of questions] Let me look at these words one more time. It's funny, I guess I wrote those words when I was twenty-four [laughing]—okay?

AAJ: It's strange to be confronted with them.

VI: It is. But I totally feel the same way. And in a way, I felt that this needed to be said in order to frame what I was doing. Often I still find myself having to say the same thing. Saying that is sort of stating the obvious—I mean, it ought to be stating the obvious—in that being who I am, I should just be respected as an individual with a particular point of view. It was a way of trying to complicate a stereotype, where I was trying to confound people's assumptions about what I'm doing—what I might be up to. Really, just trying to set the stage for my point of view, which is what my music is expressing. And yes, I feel like this is all still very much the case; but, you know, having to say that I'm a human being—I would hope that six or seven albums later, I don't have to say that anymore [laughing]. "Yes, I am a human being, and all these kinds of things. In a way, at that point in my life, I felt like I needed to say that. I remember later, Gary Giddins described me as "full of words and himself. Which was not very flattering; I mean, that was in the context of a very positive article.

AAJ: Yeah, he likes you.

VI: Yeah, but I think he was responding to statements like that! I don't know, I feel like a lot has happened in these nine or ten years of making albums—not just to me, but just in general in the world. And now maybe it's more common to see South Asians. In particular, it's more common to see South Asians doing stuff in the world—being public figures, artists, being public intellectuals, or anything. Being in a state where they can actually speak to great numbers of people. But at the time [that he wrote the above words], I felt like I needed to state, for whoever was going to be listening and reading, that I am—a fact. That was maybe a verbose way of saying it back then, but I was twenty-four; maybe I was "full of words and myself" [laughter].

AAJ: In terms of those first two CDs [Memorophilia, 1995 and Architextures, 1998]—what you could call your West Coast period—do you think your playing has changed significantly since you made those albums?

VI: Yeah. I hope it's gotten better. Well, a lot has happened. I mean, I've really worked more on technique than I had at the time. And also just being in dialogue with all these other incredible musicians like my collaborators. I'd been starting to work with Steve Coleman at the time, but also continuing to work with Rudresh [Mahanthappa] for all this time now, working with Roscoe Mitchell, with Wadada Leo Smith (who I just did a tour with), with Butch Morris. Working in hip-hop and rock, and all kind of different contexts like that, and working with classical musicians—all that really informs what I'm doing. Not only that, but also that kind of academic work I did was very much in dialogue with the music I'm making. I learned a lot from that in terms of how to structure and how to just—own my music. So yeah, my playing has changed in that it's incorporated more life experience, I guess is the best way to put it. I try to just keep up with the people I'm playing with.

AAJ: Yeah, that can be a powerful motivation.

VI: [Laughing] Yeah, trying not to lose these gigs, basically.

AAJ: Your music is complex, both harmonically and certainly rhythmically. But to me there is just as strong an emotional content. Songs like "Phalanx and "Habeas Corpus are teeming with emotion. Are you aware of consciously balancing emotion and technical structure in your music?

VI: Yeah. To me, the structures are just almost beside the point. Well, they definitely are not the point, I'll put it that way. They're more of a means to achieve something that's maybe even larger than ourselves. When dealing with very specific kinds of abstraction, like when you're imposing rhythmic systems or mathematical entities onto human bodies, trying to make music—then something happens. It's sort of about the friction between you as a person and these kind of more rational notions of order. I'm really interested in what comes out of that juxtaposition. So that's one answer. The other answer is that all my music, even though it's dealing with structure, is also dealing with something larger than notes and rhythms. It's certainly about trying to channel my life experiences and articulate a certain point of view on the world. It's also about a sense of community that comes out of collaboration—and that kind of real, collective moment. I really put a lot of faith into that and I think that it's not something to be taken for granted. I see it as a very emotionally charged moment, the moment of collaborating with somebody. I'm very inspired by Coltrane, for example, of which much the same thing could be said—except that he did it better [laughing]. Anyway, he's a major inspiration to me, and I feel like he is also kind of, ah, what's the word—nucleating [laughing]. Or sort of crystallizing this sort of sensibility that's very rigorous and also very righteous. I guess I really draw a lot from that way of setting forth musical ideas: dealing with rigor but also dealing with the fact that this music is about people and it's about people in the world who have certain kinds of experiences in the world. So it's referring to something outside of just the purely musical.

AAJ: More than notes. Speaking of collaboration, you've got a very longstanding relationship with altoist Rudresh Mahanthappa in your quartet. Now you play with [altoist] Steve Lehman in your collaborative trio Fieldwork. These are hardly generic players, and neither is Steve Coleman, who you've worked with—but do you have a special affinity for alto sax?

VI: It's more the people than the instrument. I mean, I think if Rudresh played tuba, I'd still be working with him. Although he'd be on to some different shit if he played tuba! But it's not about the instrument; it's about the mind behind it. Rudresh and I have a particular bond because of all these shared experiences and the commonality in terms of our heritage, and also the moment at which we came together ten years ago was just really crucial in both of our lives to where we were going to go next. I think we were just able to come together and really address a lot of questions that we had in common—to work on some of the same areas of creative inquiry together in a way that was very complimentary mutually in terms of how it fit. In a way, because he had focused—in terms of dealing with Indian music, for example—he had been focusing a lot on the melodic sides of Hindustani music, and I had been focusing a lot on the rhythmic sides of carnatic music. He's been focusing on Coltrane and I'd been focusing a lot on Monk. Just the way it came together was a good fit in a lot of ways.

AAJ: It really just came together for me when you said that because he's an intensely melodic player and that does bond with the mathematics of your structures.

VI: Well, he has a mind for math as well; he was really into mathematics in high school. His father's a theoretical physicist, so it's maybe more in his blood than in mine.

AAJ: He and your bassist Stephan Crump have remained constants but each of your three quartet CDs has a different drummer: you've got Derrek Philips on [2001's] Panoptic Modes, Tyshawn Sorey on Blood Sutra [2003], and now you've got Marcus Gilmore on Reimagining, your new album. I like each one of them, but they're not interchangeable players.

VI: Not at all.

AAJ: Any thoughts on how the group's music has changed with each successive drummer?

VI: Hmmm. I think that in a way they changed in ways that sort of fit the times. Like the reason I can't hold on to a drummer is that no one can hold on to a drummer.

AAJ: Is that the truism of musical life?

VI: Well, each of these guys, none of them had major gigs in New York before they worked with me, and then it didn't take long before—I guess I should take it as a compliment because it means that a lot of the right people are listening to me! [laughing] I mean, Greg Osby stole Derrek from me, basically. But Tyshawn, he has ambitions as a bandleader as well, which are now realized to an incredible degree. Not to mention that he's the new drummer in Fieldwork, which I'm very excited about. We just did this tour and he's just blazing, man, he's really incredible—as a player and as a composer, as a thinker. It's really exciting ... Now Marcus [Gilmore] is eighteen years old. I'm not really answering your question yet; I'll go back and do that, but Marcus is eighteen. Actually, he started playing with me when he was sixteen. So not many people had heard him at all before. But he does work with—well, I met him through Steve Coleman, but he also works with Clark Terry. It's funny, it's sort of like his grandfather, who's Roy Haynes, by the way. He can kind of flourish in any situation and never sound like he's compromising at all. He's totally the real deal, totally sure of who he is to a degree that he can deal with musical structure without being hindered by it. Going back to Derrek [Phillips]: he and I worked together a lot in the Bay Area. I had a version of this quartet in the Bay Area, and Rudresh would come out and play with us there and we did some gigs. We traveled, we went to Italy and actually played at this festival in India, before I moved to New York. And so working with Derrek was very much like maintaining the continuity of what we had achieved in the Bay Area, so that when we came to New York, we kind of hit the ground running. We moved at the same time and it was kind of like we were in it together. The music that we made—this is not at all meant as a dis to Derrek, but I wasn't looking to hire the baddest cats to be in my band. It was more like who's around, who's part of my community, who has the sort of love that I need to make this music happen. ... With Derrek, there was a real groundedness to his player that I really loved. In a way, it had to do with his interest in hip-hop and in urban music; having that love for the simplicity so I could develop these intricate structures but then the way he'd approach it would still have this definition and simplicity to it and a pretty strong bottom. Which I thought worked great: that album Panoptic Modes, when I listen to it now, it still feels like an achievement four or five years later.

AAJ: That's pretty telling because most musicians find it hard to listen to their records.

VI: Yeah. Stephan was just saying it's like listening to yourself on the answering machine. "Oh god, do I really sound like that? And with Tyshawn [Sorey], well, Tyshawn is one of the most brilliant musical minds I've ever encountered on any level anywhere. I'm not exaggerating. Not only could he deal with complexity, he'd add additional complexity to my music. That music that's on Blood Sutra, that album he's on, was composed and created in the aftermath of September 11th, and it has a sort of trying to process that thicket of emotions that we all, as New Yorkers, were dealing with. In a way, he was right for that project because there were so many layers to it that you could keep listening and hearing more, sort of realizing more about it as you process it more. It never quite seems finished in a way because it's so—exploding with itself.

AAJ: Well, I strongly recommend that you put all your energies into crippling Marcus's confidence so that he, never, ever leaves your band.

VI: [Laughing] Yeah, it's all about molding young minds to feel dependent. But you know what? I don't think it's possible with him. He's just so incredibly mature. Nothing sticks to him; it all just rolls off his back. He doesn't really have any issues. I think part of it is growing up in a musical family. ... Just never having it be an issue that he would be a musician, for example. It means that when he sits behind the drums he doesn't really have anything to prove.

AAJ: And yet, with a different mindset, he could feel like he has the world to prove.

AAJ: Certainly. It's just a testament to his upbringing and his sense of family and self and who he is, basically. It's very rare. So it would be very hard for me to turn him into this quivering cog in my machine, because he's totally his own man.

AAJ: Well, that's too bad. [Laughter] Let's talk about the new CD Reimagining. Your music is always about so much more than its notes. There are ideas behind the tunes: subject matter. Is there an underlying theme behind this album?

VI: It wasn't necessarily created with a theme but it was created in a certain period which was around the recent election—which was again, a very emotionally charged period. And in fact—well, maybe Chicago may be a little different—but in New York after the election, walking around in the street and just feeling the atmosphere of dejection that was everywhere. I'm not the only New Yorker to notice some similarities with September 11th. It really felt like a similar level of emotional desolation for people in New York. Of course, the election was an abstraction: nobody was killed, and the sadness didn't linger in the air for weeks, or radiate outward to the rest of the world like it did in Fall 2001. But where I live, last November 3rd felt like a very sobering morning, when we all saw the need to come to terms with how our lives would change irreversibly in the next few years. And that's something I also remember about New York on September 11. Maybe it's too easy to say that now, almost 4 years removed. But there's no disputing that in New York last November 3rd, the gloomy vibe was so thick you could cut it with a knife.

AAJ: I can only speak for my friends and acquaintances in Chicago, but I think it was a very comparable experience. To this day. I still haven't worked through it, and I still haven't processed it properly and come up with an appropriate adult response to it.

VI: I don't know. The more I think about it the more fearful I am, basically. Because I feel like it's really a different phase for this country than anything I've experienced. Just to turn it back to a course that I would feel more comfortable with could take the rest of my lifetime—if not longer. Especially now that I'm the father of a four-month-old daughter.

AAJ: That adds some gravity to the whole thing.

VI: Yeah, you want to make the world a better place for your children. I don't know; I'm not sure how to process it all. It gets more woolly and enormous everyday. The kind of change that's happening—I can't really get with.

AAJ: Well, as a creative artist, you've made an album that you said to some extent responds to it. You are processing it in a way, and the album feels hopeful. I don't hear despair in it. I hear a sense of working through.

VI: Well, I think that's basically what it is. Like I said, it was all created around that same time: immediately preceding and then immediately after it. So all of that is very much embedded in the process of making this album. I remember we'd have these rehearsals where the rehearsals would just sort of devolve into these gripe sessions [laughing]. Particularly Marcus [Gilmore]—this was his first election that he could participate in. And imagine just not even having faith in the results—or in the process that we all consider as part of being American. It's heavy. Not to overly freight this project with that content; like I said, it's not like this album was made with those themes in mind. I mean, some of the pieces are directly associated with certain events...

AAJ: "The Big Almost.

AAJ: For example. But I think more generally, it's the mood under which it was created. And I agree with you that it is about hope, ultimately.

AAJ: This album has a nice mixture of trio material, lots of quartet stuff and then there's that final solo piano tune [Iyer's cover of John Lennon's "Imagine ]. I particularly love "Inertia, which almost reminds me of Debussy or Satie.

VI: It's somewhere in that realm of kind of—ominous French parlor music [laughing]. That whole tradition from Chopin to Messiaen. And it's through-composed; there's no improvisation in it. It has this unsettled—well, what other word besides "inertia?

AAJ: When I reviewed the CD, I said something about it giving the impression of you seeming to be struggling against great weight.

VI: [Laughing] Well, I was thinking in particular about Chopin because he was basically insane, by all accounts. And there's something almost macabre about it. In fact, that's actually a very placid piece but there are a couple twists to it. One is that there's this bitonality going on and the other is that there's this sustained polyrhythm through the entire thing so that basically the melody is in six and everything else is in seven. This very gentle—rubbing coming out of these different strata.

AAJ: A mild sort of incompatibility.

VI: Yeah, so there's something that doesn't quite fit about this picture here. I guess the way you described it is pretty fitting. If you were to try to put it into a social context, I think it's pretty obvious what I'm thinking, like: how do you create change in a stultifying atmosphere like this one?

AAJ: The cards seem stacked.

VI: But that song comes on the heels of a piece called "Revolutions, which is very much about the possibility of change.

AAJ: "Cardio on this album feels like the cousin to "Stigmatism on Blood Sutra, although "Stigmatism is more Bud Powell-y, maybe, and "Cardio has more of an electronica feel, with that kind of complex, skittering rhythm. They both have rapid, dancing piano.

VI: That's funny because that piece dates back to the same time. I actually had written it for Blood Sutra and in fact, we tried to record it. But I wasn't able to achieve it that day. It was hard! I think we saved it until last on that session and my fingers were like a pulp at the end of it. I couldn't even play the main figure. But yeah, in terms of that connection with electronica, it's definitely there. There's almost an iciness and a broken quality to it. It feels like this weird, whirring contraption that has these different cogs in it that are spinning at these different rates, or something like that. I'm interested in how you can use acoustic instruments to evoke this very machine-like, almost inhuman image—and yet to kind of undermine that as well.

AAJ: I'm fascinated with the way you accompany Rudresh when he's soloing. Traditionally in jazz you'd call it "comping, but what you do sometimes is almost polyphonic in its musical substance. Like a simultaneous parallel solo. There's some of that on "Infogee's Cakewalk, and "Questions of Agency on Blood Sutra has it too. Is this something you try to do?

VI: Yeah. Some of it came from my work with Roscoe [Mitchell]. I really learned this different sense of what it means to accompany. It's funny, but what people want out of an interactive context—somehow they want people to perform interactivity: prove to each other that they're listening by imitating each other. Roscoe would call it "following, like people just following each other around on stage. Suggesting they can't think for themselves, essentially. He'd always say, "don't follow me! Goddamn! It's going to bog me down; you don't know what I'm trying to play over here! [Laughing] And so he was very interested in people generating their own independent streams of information. Then the listener discerns an emergent counterpoint. That's not to say you're not listening to each other; in fact you have to listen more deeply. It's almost more like you're trying to avoid each other, and you get tuned in to the overall dynamic. So I try to draw a lot from that whole mentality, too, because comping in the traditional way: in a way it's so overdetermined. I mean, it's been done to such a degree. How am I going to top McCoy [Tyner] playing with 'Trane? I'm not. So I'm trying to come up with some other strategies. So we do that on purpose; that's the short answer.

AAJ: I think my favorite song on the new CD at the moment is "Experience. It's got an eternal, mandala-like quality. It's really just modulating ostinati, and I like how the recording ends on a fade—as if it goes on forever, in either direction.

VI: It's something that's been recurring in my work. Maybe it's an obsession and maybe [laughing] it's a rut, but I'm interested in these kinds of cycles within cycles. Dealing with arpeggiated material that varies, or that progresses through some other material. So I've been doing that a lot; you'll hear it in the opening segments of In What Language?. It's really crystallizing ideas through different sources like, certainly dealing with African rhythms and carnatic ideas about rhythm. But also Cecil [Taylor]. When you listen to him playing in ensembles, he's always playing. And it's not really soloing. When other people are soloing, for example, he's still playing as hard as he ever does. It's like this continual motion, or momentum, that he's generating. I think it keeps the music aloft. Somehow time and physical activity become one, because as soon as you stop playing it all dissipates instantly. I'm interested in how there's this intimate connection between the physical and the temporal through that kind of activity, and how it creates this other way of experiencing time. So maybe that's why it's called "Experience. That's one aspect of it. Like you said, it just sort of gently modulates. There's something about it that's somewhat attenuated until the very end, when it starts to expand, and it sort of expands into infinity, because it just fades away. It's just a certain interpretation of what it means to experience: what the experience of experience is.

AAJ: The album closes with your solo piano version of John Lennon's song "Imagine. You alter it, though. It has a different kind of emotional quality. It doesn't provide the release that the original chorus does. It's like you never reach that part of the chorus.

VI: No, it's in there. Well, it's varied a little more, and at the end I kind of cycle it. Maybe what you're saying is that it doesn't resolve in a major way. It sort of hints at it, but in technical terms it doesn't resolve major, it resolves to an inverted minor chord. So it sounds almost major, but not quite. And you know, maybe there's something programmatic about that choice. I turned it into this song of yearning—maybe it's already this song of yearning, but I'm focusing on that strand within it. The original has this deceptive, childlike innocence about it. I guess I was interested in complicating that while still maintaining that thread of yearning that runs through it.

AAJ: To me, it gave the notion that that utopia that he describes in that song is really nothing to ridicule—but maybe it's a little more complicated, and it's going to be more hard-won if we ever achieve it.

VI: I think that's in keeping with what I was thinking, certainly. That was definitely my reason for choosing to deal with that song in the first place. It's funny, because when a lot of people do covers in this tradition, especially nowadays—sometimes it's for reasons of nostalgia or kitsch. Or else just to display mastery of a certain kind. I feel if you're going to deal with something from the archived history, you need to recontextualize it in a way that really highlights your own stance—your own moment, essentially. I wish people would do that more; I feel like that's what people like Bird and Monk were doing when they'd deal with standards. The fact that Cole Porter wrote those words: that wasn't really the point. Maybe their versions could be seen as ironic.

AAJ: There's always an irony to Bird, but there's also an affection for the material. You always feel like he likes it; he's not too cool, he's not dissing it. But there's definitely a wryness to it.

VI: Yeah, yeah. And also he's always articulating his complicated relationship to those songs, to the Tin Pan Alley tradition, to why he is not considered in the same league as someone like Irving Berlin. I don't think I'm reading too much into it when I hear that there's some sort of commentary going on.

AAJ: I don't think you are either. I think your friend Mike Ladd would call it postmodernism. And he'd be right!

VI: I just want to jump on something you just said, because it almost suggested that Bird was the first postmodernist. I think that that reading almost sets postmodernism on its ear and I think that's very empowering. I'm very much in agreement with that. Although he's contemporaneous with modernism, so—I guess he was in enough of a position to be able to critique modernism, that's for sure.

Continue: Part 2


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