Vijay Iyer: Intellect Meets Creativity

by Dean Christesen Pianist Vijay Iyer’s latest release, Tragicomic, has seen the tops of numerous Best of 2008 lists. The album features his trio (with Stephan Crump on bass and Marcus Gilmore on drums) and quartet (add Rudresh Mahanthappa on alto saxophone) and is a spectacle of brilliant compositions paired with masterful playing on both […]

by Dean Christesen

Pianist Vijay Iyer’s latest release, Tragicomic, has seen the tops of numerous Best of 2008 lists. The album features his trio (with Stephan Crump on bass and Marcus Gilmore on drums) and quartet (add Rudresh Mahanthappa on alto saxophone) and is a spectacle of brilliant compositions paired with masterful playing on both individual and collective levels.
Since 1995, Iyer has recorded numerous albums for various groups including his duo with Mahanthappa, his trio Fieldwork, and collaborations with poet/performer Mike Ladd. On Wednesday, his trio featured on Tragicomic will perform at the Modlin Center for the Arts.

In an interview while on the island of Hawaii, Iyer shed light on his musical background, the strengths of his band mates, and how the blues aesthetic can provide inspiration to approach a crucial time in the world.

RVAjazz: You have mentioned that you are mainly a self-taught musician, so I am curious to hear about some of your early influences on the piano.

VI: Well, the biggest influence is Thelonious Monk. He wasn’t exactly self-taught but had a very personal relationship to the instrument, which just felt true to me. I should also say that I’m not exactly a self-taught musician – just a self-taught pianist. I had 15 years of violin lessons!

Anyway Monk, Duke Ellington, Andrew Hill, Sun Ra, Herbie Nichols, Geri Allen, Randy Weston, Muhal Richard Abrams, as well as McCoy and Herbie (the usual suspects). And I should also mention Cecil Taylor.

RVAjazz: Do you find yourself listening to them often now? Or were they more of influences in your early development as a pianist?

VI: Yes, constantly. I still listen to Monk almost every day. Especially now that I have a lot of students, I keep pointing them back to that particular variety of playing.

RVAjazz: Any particular albums stand out?

VI: I love all of Monk’s recordings and have dissected almost every single one, but nowadays I keep coming back to the Columbia years a lot – the 1960s quartet sessions with Charlie Rouse. Those years got a bum rap by critics for some reason – maybe it wasn’t seen as “innovative” enough – but to me it’s such a crystallization of all his amazing innovations. I think the groove is so deep on those sessions, it’s really electrifying. A standout disc for me is the one titled “Straight, No Chaser” – not the film soundtrack, but the original album of this name. The CD reissue has these really long and luxurious takes. “Underground” is also a classic, and “Live at the It Club” is fantastic.

RVAjazz: Yeah, all great albums. So to what extent has Indian music and other non-Western musics influenced your playing and composing?

VI: Very deeply. I’ve spent the last, oh, 15 years or so looking into the music of my Indian heritage, particularly South Indian (Karnatak or “Carnatic”) music. As a pianist who gravitated to the “percussive” players (see above), I also gravitated to the rhythmic side of Indian music.

RVAjazz: The rhythmic aspect of your compositions is phenomenal.

VI: Thank you for that! So a lot of my compositions feature structures that are inspired by or connected to those traditions, though it’s not always obvious to outsiders. Indian musicians can hear it immediately, but others will often say things like, “So, have you heard any Indian music?”

RVAjazz: Right, exactly.

VI: Anyway I do draw from other aspects of Indian music, but usually the goal is not to make my music sound more Indian or to “portray” Indian music in my own. It’s more of a personal process for me. It helps me connect and harmonize with my heritage, and helps me create something that feels grounded and new at the same time.

I’m also deeply influenced by African rhythmic traditions. I had the chance to study West African drumming for a little while, and I also got to hang out with some Afro-Cuban musicians for a little while. And of course the many amazing African-American rhythmic innovations, from Max Roach to Elvin Jones to James Brown to Busta Rhymes – these are all deep influences for me. I learned a lot from working with Steve Coleman for several years – he prompted me to orient myself more in the rhythmic direction.

RVAjazz: How have these rhythms and mixed meters shaped the other aspects of your playing like melody and harmony?

VI: It’s not that they “shape” one another, but they do interact. A lot of my melodic/harmonic language is connected to those other pianist-composers I mentioned. I’ve also studied a lot of Western composers, particularly those of the last 100 years – Schoenberg, Berg, Stravinsky, Bartok, Messiaen, Ligeti, Reich, Glass, Rzewski, Stockhausen, etc – as well as the AACM experimentalists – Braxton, Threadgill, Roscoe Mitchell, Wadada Leo Smith – and learned from their approaches as well. Of course I try to connect and unify it all as much as I can, and most of all give it a visceral energy so that it’s not an academic exercise. That’s why I keep coming back to Monk. To me he had all of these things: a deep rhythmic and harmonic sophistication, a compositional voice, and a unity with his creative language. And he was such a thrilling performer! It’s incredible, really.

RVAjazz: I’d like to talk about your band and your relationship with the musicians you perform with. You commented in an interview for Pi that you have to “trust” your band mates. Are you able to trust them immediately when you first play with them or does it develop over time as a band? In other words, what does it feel like to really click with musicians that you can trust and how does this impact the way you perform?

VI: I’ve been fortunate to play with some really amazing players, some of whom (e.g. Tyshawn Sorey) will instantly make your music sound better than you imagined. In general I have been lucky to connect with players who are world-class and also care about developing and expanding the music. What does it feel like? I suppose the best analogy would be a great game of pick-up basketball, where everyone is in sync and working together and also shining as individuals. So you have that combination of playful spontaneity, great skill, grace, and power. Of course a great team can develop beyond the immediate “pick-up” level and develop strategies that work reliably and are still flexible enough for real time. So you ideally get a combination of those things. The sturdiness of those longstanding relationships mixed with the spontaneity of a new game!

RVAjazz: Is a new game a new piece of music?

VI: It could be – but it could also be a new performance situation. Every show presents its own possibilities for discovery. That’s the great thing about types of music (or other activities: sport, debate, etc

) that have improvisation at the center.

RVAjazz: Improvisation with a group of people seems to have exponentially greater possibilities.

VI: Improvisation is such a fundamental human experience – in some ways it’s identical with experience. This music just magnifies that quality that we all have in our lives. It’s really something that we’re all doing nearly all the time. But yes, when it’s an interactive situation with multiple individuals, then everyone brings something unique to the occasion. That’s how music becomes larger than any individual. I call myself a composer, but I really just see it as setting things in motion so everyone can build the music together.

RVAjazz: In your current trio, what do Stephan Crump and Marcus Gilmore offer to the music?

VI: Stephan is a bassist who thinks like a bassist – as opposed to a frustrated guitarist or a stealth cellist… ;-) That means that he works at the foundation of the music, and thinks about support and simplicity. It’s really valuable for me to have that simple solid center to this somewhat intricate music. He also plays with amazing energy and intent. He means every note he plays. It helps give the music this undeniable feeling (at least I think so!).

RVAjazz: Absolutely.

VI: He’s played with me since 1999 so we’re entering our second decade soon…!

RVAjazz: That must be great to play with someone for that long.

VI: Yes, for sure. Marcus is a brilliant young prodigy of the drums. He’s worked with me since he was 16! He’s now 22 and kicking much ass.

RVAjazz: That’s incredible. Do you hear traits of Roy Haynes in his playing at all?

VI: Yes, for sure, he has a certain vibe that I associate with his grandfather. There’s a certain lift and animated quality in there that you can connect. And his technique on the instrument has this great quality that is grounded in the jazz tradition – it feels handmade, but with amazing precision and specificity. So you get that humanity and warmth as well as that strength and accuracy. Another thing that’s been said of Roy Haynes is that when you listen to him you don’t hear the time in one place – there’s what Braxton calls a “summation” logic, where the time feeling seems to result from all the sounds you hear. It’s not just spang-a-lang on the ride cymbal. It’s a really creative holistic approach to the kit. Marcus has that too, I would say.

It’s interesting because unlike a lot of jazz composers, I write specific parts for the drums. This is something I learned from working with Steve Coleman, who got it from Doug Hammond (and we all got it from African music, of course). Anyway he has a great way of transforming the parts I create into something that sounds really natural – sometimes you don’t even notice it, but you feel the difference, the additional order it creates.

RVAjazz: It’s really refreshing to receive a written drum part, because you know the composer has really put thought into the way it should sound and the way the drums serve the music.

VI: Yeah, to me that’s the first thing you notice about music when you hear it – what does it feel like? What’s the foundation? How does it “hit” you? It’s a physical thing, really.

RVAjazz: Have your studies of math and physics influenced your music in any way? And has your research in music cognition affected your approach to music composition?

VI: Well, yes to both. The so-called “math” in my music is really grade-school math – anyone could do it. Nothing too advanced going on. I do think a lot about the physics of sound, particularly the continuum between timbre, harmony, and resonance. The music perception research I did has infused my work pretty deeply – actually they sort of inspired each other. What I just said about rhythm and the body is basically straight out of my thesis. What we call rhythm in music is exactly analagous to the way we move. The perception of musical rhythm is, neurologically, identical to “imagined” movement. And it makes sense – when you observe that every human culture on earth has some notion of music and dance, that there is almost always some direct connection between rhythm and movement – it’s kind of a no-brainer, no pun intended.

RVAjazz: Some African cultures see no difference between the two terms “music” and “dance,” I believe.

VI: Well it’s not always that simple, but yes, the disconnect between the two is more the exception. I guess it comes about when you have an “art” music that is meant for sedentary contemplation rather than physical engagement. So you find that separation in imperial court music, or among the religious elite or the bourgeois, in many cultures. Still, dance often remains, perhaps more stylized in a “classical” form, as a remnant of that original connection. Anyway, that’s just my theory of everything ;-)

RVAjazz: In an interview with GritTV, you said, “You can’t really talk about the blues as just a form. It’s like this sensibility that’s deeply embedded in American history….As an Indian American, I wanted to place myself in a dialogue with that history.” Can you talk about Tragicomic and how the blues aesthetic is represented or infused in the music?
VI: To me it’s at the level of emotion more than anything. In the liner notes I mention Cornel West, who sort of re-purposed the term “tragicomic” to describe the sensibility born of African Americans’ encounter with the absurd, specifically the extreme cruelties visited upon them in the first centuries of American life. To carry on in the face of such absurdity, he says, required a tragicomic sensibility – an ability to lighten the darkness, maybe, or to confront the impossible, with creative energy. So what I was hoping to suggest with this music is that, particularly at the terrifying moment we find ourselves in, we might consider learning from that sensibility. To me, at least, there’s some inspiration to be gained from it.

I think also it’s important to place African-American aesthetics at the center of this music. That’s where the music came from and that’s why it exists. I’m just fortunate to be able to interact with the music from my perspective, and to reconsider what resonances there might be with my own experience, or with anyone’s. The point is to honor that legacy and not commodify it, but also to learn from it. I think that America was invited to reconsider a lot of this in light of the ascent and success of Obama. Those are symptoms of a larger development in our culture – it’s about who we are and where we are and what time it is!

RVAjazz: Absolutely. We’re really fortunate to have someone like yourself at the forefront of this music.

VI: Well thanks, I am lucky to be a part of it!

Vijay Iyer Trio performs Wednesday night at the Modlin Center for the Arts at the University of Richmond, at 7:30pm.< span style="font-style:italic;"> Tickets are $8-32. For more information, visit

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Dean Christesen

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