Four years ago saxophonist Roscoe Mitchell needed a last-minute replacement to fill the piano seat on his European tour. He called Vijay Iyer.
It was a breakthrough gig for the young pianist. When he got home to New York he played a tape recording for some friends.
"I was like, 'Guess who this is.' None of them thought it was me, Iyer reminisced. "I listened back and was like, 'What the hell am I doing? Who is that?' [That tour] took me far outside of myself. I found myself playing in ways I've never heard myself play before.
The 33-year-old new dad (his daughter Jayanti was born in January) has discovered a lot about himself during the past decade. For starters he realized, after earning a masters degree in physics from Yale University, he loved music, not science.
"I had to make a choice, do I resign myself to a life not quite doing what I love or do I take this chance to go for what is meaningful for me? I just took the leap, he said.
A risky move, especially for the son of Indian immigrants whose generation aspired for financial stability. But that generation also valued hard work and in 1998 Iyer received his Ph.D in music from the University of California at Berkeley, where he encountered alto saxophonist Steve Coleman.
"Working with Steve just kicked my ass, he said. "It really forced me to deal with things on a higher level of rigor and specificity and dexterity. It's easy to take the easy way out and make some pretty sounds, but if you're on this lifelong quest to explore and ask questions, it's that real searching mentality which people like Coltrane and Miles and Bird and Monk were all on that takes you to something deeper than that. Deeper than just making pretty sounds.
Iyer's 2003 collaboration with poet/hip-hop artist Mike Ladd In What Language? , questioned the persistence of stereotypes in an increasingly global environment. Inspired by Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi, a victim of racial profiling who was sent back to Hong Kong by JFK airport officials, the multi-disciplinary stage show combines video projections, a chamber ensemble and a cast of singers.
This year Iyer and Ladd have already begun presenting excerpts from their new work Still Life With Commentator, which examines the role of a population that perceives the world through the media's lens. They plan to complete the project late next year.
This month Iyer releases Simulated Progress (Pi Records) with Fieldwork, the band he plays in with alto and sopranino saxophonist Steve Lehman and drummer Tyshawn Sorey, who replaced Elliot Kavee in January.
"It feels like a really fresh contribution to instrumental music, Lehman said. "When we were in the studio recording each of our compositions, we realized how special it was, to combine our different aesthetics into something that had continuity and integrity on its own right.
As a collective, each member contributes compositions which are developed collaboratively by the band. As a bass-less trio, "everyone has to fulfill their functions a little bit differently, Iyer explained. "The way I play is very different from the comping in one hand and soloing in the other hand kind of thing. I have to somehow create a foundation and somehow improvise with the foundation. So sometimes I'm playing almost like a drummer or bassist.
Not too foreign a concept for the pianist, who views the instrument mainly as a percussive tool and calls himself a "Thelonious Monk freak. His exploration of rhythmic traditions makes him a natural match for saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa, whose studies have paralleled Iyer's while concentrating on the melodic aspects of the music.
"We've developed such a rapport and such a high level of communication that's really unparalleled, Mahanthappa said. "I feel like we've pried each other's minds open in a lot of different ways.
The pair, who share a similar South Asian heritage, started playing together as a duo shortly after they met nine years ago. In the late '90s they played a small tour as a trio with percussionist Trichy Sankaran who lives in Toronto. They also play in each other's quartets and in 1998 Iyer took his group to a festival in Mumbai, India.
"That was really exciting because I had a bunch of relatives in the audience," he said. My grandfather, cousins, uncles and aunts. I'm American. I was born and raised in the U.S., but I have this intimate relationship to India and for people there to see one of their kinsmen up on stage for the first time at this festival is pretty significant, so that was really a great moment."
Iyer's third quartet album Reimagining, was released last May on Savoy Records with Mahanthappa, bassist Stephen Crump and drummer Marcus Gilmore. The follow-up to 2003's critically acclaimed Blood Sutra continues the pianist's rhythmic exploration while churning through thick melodies steeped in profound thought and feeling.