His Personal World Of Sound

For jazz musician Vijay Iyer, it’s not about being overtly Indian. It’s about working from the inside.

Musicians like Iyer are in the process of convincing anyone with ears to listen that jazz is still an art form with vital and exciting things to say. © LAYLAH AMATULLAH BARRAYN
01 May, 2010

VIJAY IYER LIKES TO THROW listeners a little off balance. The ingredients on Iyer’s latest album, Historicity (2009), are basic—a piano, bass and drums—but the music refuses to settle into familiar grooves. Melodies from famous songs are entirely transformed; bursts of percussive sound come from unexpected parts of the piano; the bassist creates eerie slow slides on the strings; and the beats never quite fall where you think they will.

Stay inside the music for a while, though, and the melodies begin to emerge, the pulse is felt beneath the shifting rhythms. Each piece keeps developing, explaining itself. A listener’s freedom to lose the thread and then, with attention, find it again is part of the appeal and excitement of Iyer’s music, and jazz in general.

Historicity is a collection of such discoveries, both in Iyer’s own compositions and his radical reworkings of other artists’ songs. After six previous albums, all well-received, along with six collaborations, this one is bringing him a new level of acclaim and the attention of a wider audience. The Los Angeles Times—which along with several other publications named Historicity the best jazz album of the year—wrote that “no record defined the jazz landscape in 2009 quite like this release on a German label from a New York-based piano trio led by the son of Indian immigrants.”

When I talk to Iyer on the phone, he is at home in his apartment on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, keeping an eye on his five-year-old daughter, who is recovering from laryngitis. He takes occasional breaks to check on her. “She’s fine,” he says, laughing. “She’s just hiding behind a chair.” Iyer is about to leave for a European tour with Raw Materials, his longtime partnership with saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa. This is only one of Iyer’s many collaborations—with poets, with visual artists, with carnatic classical musicians—all part of an impulse to seek out situations that take him outside his existing knowledge and destabilise his certainties.

In addition to creating and performing his own music, Iyer composes pieces for Western classical orchestras, teaches aspiring musicians at two New York universities, and writes programme notes for a variety of concerts. “I’m always late with something or another,” he says, but he sounds cheerful rather than overwhelmed. After all, he gets to create music for a living and this, as he admits, might easily not have been the case.

“It could have just not worked out,” Iyer says. “I guess I was a bit hardheaded.”

At 23, he had spent years on track to become a physicist. After studying at Yale and completing a Masters in physics from the University of California at Berkeley, he was considering “abandoning all of that” and devoting himself to jazz.

“THAT WAS NOT AN EASY CHOICE TO MAKE,” he says. “It wasn’t easy news to break to my parents.”

Iyer’s parents, both Tamil, were among the first Indians to arrive in Rochester in the late 1960s, all pioneers, as Iyer describes them, “improvising their way through upstate New York.”

Born in 1971, music was part of his life from early childhood. Iyer’s first instrument was the violin, and he grew up playing Western classical while listening to the same music as most other American kids: Michael Jackson, Prince and early hip-hop—Run DMC, Afrika Bambaataa, and A Tribe Called Quest. His sister was the one who took piano lessons, and Iyer would bang out accompaniment on the lower notes of the family’s spinet.

Somewhere in the background, as well, was carnatic classical music, which Iyer encountered at Indian community functions in Rochester. “I grew up more passively with it,” Iyer says. “It was around, but I was no expert on it.”

In high school, Iyer began playing keyboard in rock bands, but was drawn more and more to jazz, inspired by recordings from artists like Thelonious Monk and, during his undergraduate days, performances by saxophonists like Julius Hemphill and Roscoe Mitchell.

From L to R: Vijay, Paul D Miller/DJ Spooky and Rudresh Mahanthappa. © LAYLAH AMATULLAH BARRAYN.

His musical education took another, more crucial turn when he arrived in San Francisco. Even though he was technically there to get his Masters, Iyer began playing in jazz clubs. Surrounded by the Bay Area’s thriving Indian community, he also started listening seriously to carnatic music for the first time. After discovering pianist Randy Weston, who drew heavily on African music to produce his own distinctive, modern compositions, he began trying to find a way to put “the piano in dialogue with some rhythmic elements of Indian music and building a kind of musical language around that.”

With so much around him that fired his sense of artistic possibilities, Iyer realised that a career in academia was simply not for him.

“Music is what I love,” he says, describing his thought process at that time. “And it’s starting to turn into something for me. So if I don’t give it this chance now, I’ll always regret it.”

He knew that he was trading a stable career for a profoundly uncertain one. The decision, he says, was never based on financial prospects. “It wasn’t even that I thought, ‘Okay, this has to be my career.’ It was more, ‘This has to be my life.’”

OF ALL THE WESTERN CLASSICAL INSTRUMENTS, the piano is the most suited to exploring the intersection between rhythm and melody. Its designation as a percussion instrument becomes more apparent at the extremes of its range—the lower keys that Iyer used to pound as he played with his sister, and the higher keys, which don’t sing like the upper range of a violin, but have a duller, more wooden resonance.

These are still the ranges that Iyer loves to explore, along with the intervals that the ear hears as dissonances, what Iyer describes as the forbidden harmonies, which draw attention to the chord as a rhythmic as well as melodic element. As he searched for his own voice, Iyer was continually drawn to musicians who pushed against the boundaries of conventional methods of expression—utilising more adventurous harmonies, more polyrhythmic complexity, always trying to create a personal world of sound.

“All of those artists that I’ve worked with are sort of radical individualists,” Iyer says. “They think for themselves, and they give you ideas about how you can think for yourself. So I don’t ever think, ‘Oh, I should copy that.’ It’s more, ‘What if I brought my own sensibility in contact with the same information?’”

IYER DID NOT END UP LEAVING HIGHER EDUCATION. Even after he knew he would not become a physicist, he found a few like-minded professors at Berkeley who helped him design an interdisciplinary PhD that would serve his musical interests. “I was really a full-time artist, performer, composer, who was using graduate school to focus some of my ideas,” Iyer says. In particular, his ideas about rhythm.

Working with a master drummer from Ghana, he started to get a sense of the philosophy behind African music. “The intricacy of the layering of the compositional elements,” Iyer says, “the polyrhythms and the motifs that are superimposed and placed in dialogue with each other. All of that stuff has influenced so much music—not just mine, but basically all of American music has that sensibility that carried over in the Middle Passage,” referring to the route by which African slaves were brought over the Atlantic to the Americas, which eventually produced, among other things, the blues, jazz, rock and roll, and rap.

Steve Lehman and Vijay Iyer of the collective named Fieldwork which brought out Door (2008). © Laylah Amatullah Barrayn

Gradually, in Berkeley’s jazz clubs, Iyer began to craft a unique sound. It took some time for people to catch on. Part of the reason was that, when Iyer’s first album, Memorophilia, appeared in 1995, there was no precedent for an Indian musician working in the jazz tradition.

Both Iyer and Rudresh Mahanthappa, who were trying to enter the scene around the same time, describe being seen as outsiders, and not being asked to play with certain musicians. As Mahanthappa said in a conversation with Iyer from several years ago, neither of them “fit into any preconceived notion of what a jazz musician is supposed to be.”

When Architextures, Iyer’s second album, came out in 1998, he felt compelled to write that it “represents my perspective as a member of the South Asian diaspora, but also as a human being with a mind, body, and soul.”

“You know,” he continued, “it ought not to have been necessary to say that. But frankly, at the time it was necessary—in a way that maybe it isn’t today—to use the opportunity to say, ‘I am a fact. Look at me as a fact, as part of reality, not as part of your fantasy or your dreams about the East; just try to deal with me on my terms.’

AFTER LAUNCHING HIS CAREER IN THE BAY AREA, Iyer moved to New York City. As vibrant as the West Coast music scene is, New York has always had a special relationship with modern jazz. Although the early years of the art form are associated with New Orleans and a number of other cities, the revolution known as bebop developed almost entirely in New York. From progenitors like Art Tatum, whose solo piano recordings from the 1930s and 40s are still astonishing, to pioneers like Charlie Parker, Bud Powell, and Thelonious Monk, most of the musicians who created bebop developed their style in the Big Apple’s jazz clubs. Over the course of the 1950s, jazz, in their hands, became more idiosyncratic and complex, less about getting people to dance and more about communicating a personal vision.

Iyer found his place in this city with the help of one of the radical individualists whom he so admired—the late jazz pianist Andrew Hill, whose composition, ‘Smokestack,’ Iyer covers on Historicity.

“I never took lessons with him,” Iyer says.  “But he gave me a lot of advice. And he cared about me. And he would often be brutally honest about stuff with me. He would come to my gig and then call me the next morning and wake me up, and tell me something that I didn’t want to hear necessarily. But it would turn out to be true. It would take me years to understand [that].”

As an established musician, Hill helped introduce Iyer to people in the music industry, and told them that he was a musician to watch out for. “That kind of stamp of approval,” Iyer says, “from someone as legendary as him, that counts for a lot.”

While he performed and composed, Iyer continued to study the legends that had played in the city before him. He never wants his music, he says, to be dislodged from the jazz tradition.

“I’m like a disciple of Thelonious Monk,” Iyer says, giving one example. “I’m influenced by every aspect of what he did as a pianist and composer, as an improviser, and bandleader. There’s just so much power and beauty and precision and heart and…swagger,” he says, laughing.

Musicians often sought out Monk for collaborations, even though his music was notoriously difficult to play. One of them was saxophonist John Coltrane, another of Iyer’s influences.

“Particularly his recording of ‘My Favorite Things’…He did this radical arrangement that actually brought in Indian elements. It’s basically built around a drone, like a shruti element, that pervades the entire song. He does kind of raga-like improvisations on it. So he’s not really playing in the chord changes. He’s playing modally over a drone pitch, which is more reminiscent of Indian music. He was interested not in creating fusion, but in working with structural compositional elements of Indian music in his own music. And that’s a huge inspiration for me. It’s not about being overtly Indian. It’s about working from the inside...”

Historicity trio: Iyer, in the front, Marcus Gilmore, drummer, in the middle, and Stephan Crump, bass, in the back. © LYNNE HARTY

OVER THE COURSE OF HIS NEXT SEVERAL ALBUMS, Iyer began to create similarly radical interpretations in his music. ‘Hey Joe,’ famously covered by Jimi Hendrix, appeared on Blood Sutra(2003), and John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’ on Reimagining(2005).

This ability to take a composition and, to use Iyer’s word, ‘refract’ it through a new musical personality, has long been a part of jazz. As with Hindustani and carnatic music, the listener is given a melodic touchstone, a safe space to return to, before the artist begins increasingly daring excursions into unknown territory.

These explorations gain a new intensity on Historicity, more than half of which is covers. This was not originally Iyer’s plan; these just happened to be the most vibrant of the many tracks the trio cut for the album.

The songs touch on diverse aspects of Iyer’s musical life. Some of them are compositions he grew up with. ‘Big Brother’ is a Stevie Wonder song, and Iyer’s performance of  ‘Somewhere’  is informed by memories of watching his family’s old VHS tape of West Side Story in 8th grade. ‘Mystic Brew’ was famously sampled on A Tribe Called Quest’s ‘Electric Relaxation.’ Other covers pay tribute to the artists that inspired and mentored him—Andrew Hill’s ‘Smokestack’ and Julius Hemphill’s ‘Dogon A.D.’ There is also a cover of ‘Galang,’ by M.I.A., originally Mathangi Arulpragasam, another product of the Tamil diaspora. DJs, it turns out, have started playing Iyer’s version of the song in dance clubs. “Which is a surprise,” Iyer says. “They say it works.”

I ASK HIM HOW HE FEELS about this response to his music, especially since jazz was once America’s dance music, and lost much of its audience when it stopped performing that function. “This is a dynamic you see a lot in culture around the world,” Iyer says. “The elements of dance music being transformed into an art music that may or may not have that dance sensibility…There’s always been this tension between [jazz’s] status as art and its status as vernacular. I think that it’s important to embrace both sides of that.”

Vijay Iyer on piano and Stephan Crump on bass at a performance in New York in 2008. © NICHOLAS BIONDO

Today, however, many no longer perceive modern jazz as a part of vernacular culture. As Iyer acknowledges, the music has become freighted, for whatever reason, with various anxieties. “There’s a certain kind of guilt factor that comes into play with jazz. People will be like ‘I don’t know anything about jazz...therefore I don’t listen to it, or therefore I don’t want to pay attention to it.’ And part of it is that people feel obliged to be experts on it in order to listen to it.”

Part of the challenge of being a jazz musician today—or a painter or a poet, for that matter—is simply getting people to actively engage with the work and trust their response. “There’s no great mystery,” Iyer says. “It’s just about letting people in the door.” As he said in an interview during the recording of Historicity, “Anybody who could shed that preconception of what jazz is, what it should or shouldn’t be, and just approach it as a human endeavour, I think, would find something to resonate with here.”

LIKE MOST IMPROVISATIONAL ARTS, jazz gains immeasurably from being experienced live.  Every musician produces sound not just with an instrument or a set of vocal cords, but with the entire body. A melodic phrase can be formed with the motions of a pair of hands, its rhythms accented by the slide of a foot. As Amiri Baraka wrote of Thelonious Monk, “The quick dips, half-whirls, and deep pivoting jerks that Monk gets into behind that piano are part of the music, too. Many musicians have mentioned how they could get further into the music by watching Monk dance, following the jerks and starts.”

Iyer isn’t as wild as Monk on stage, but you can still follow the pulse of the music with the rise and fall of the shoulders, the way he approaches the keys, the pecking, percussive shape of his hand for certain phrases, and the rolling caress of others. These are the kinds of signposts that help communicate the texture of an evolving composition to an audience, and simply can’t be provided by a recording.

Opportunities to hear this music live are unfortunately rarer than they once were. There are fewer jazz clubs today, and the music is not often on TV or the radio in most parts of the world. Many people still listen to jazz seriously on recordings, but as with Western classical music, there is a perception that the golden era is over, and much of the audience is satisfied with listening to the swing and bebop legends whose careers ended decades ago.

Musicians like Iyer, however, are in the process of convincing anyone with ears to listen that this is still an art form with vital and exciting things to say. Today, he senses a resurgence, “a recentring,” he says, “of the new in jazz,” which will be nourished by the art’s heritage while continuing to be a vehicle for innovative, personal expression. Lately, he has been listening to a lot of music with his daughter. “We listen to a lot of Michael Jackson,” he says. “I’ve been doing a version of ‘Human Nature.’ My next thing is a solo piano record. It may surface on that. That’s a song that was covered by Miles Davis. His version was a bit verbatim, I’d say. In my version I try to introduce a bit of mystery.”

TO TAKE SOMETHING THAT HAS BEEN DRAINED of significance through excessive familiarity—a show tune, a pop song—and breathe new life and mystery into it is one of jazz’s special abilities, something no other genre of music can quite duplicate. There is something hopeful about this, and Iyer is optimistic about the future.

It has been over ten years since Iyer has performed in India, but he hopes to come back and play for what he knows is a growing audience of jazz fans. “I have a lot of family over there and a lot of reasons to go back,” he says. “I’m long overdue.”