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Vijay Iyer, Capturing Your World In the Moment

Written by
Anthony Dean-Harris
Editor-in-Chief / @i_ADH
Interview by
Jonathan Wertheim
Staff Writer / @rtbjazz

It's pretty difficult to picture a time in which pianist Vijay Iyer hasn't emanated calm. In every interview, tweet, and essay, Iyer has always shown a depth of wisdom and serenity, even when his music can at times portray an immense freneticism, especially in his most recent album on the ACT label, Accelerando. It is only upon tapping this wisdom can one find that his calm in contrast with his ever-present potential for frenzy is always rooted in his ability to capture the moment.

It's this nigh-photographic ability that may be the reason Iyer has been releasing spectacular albums so frequently and consistently-- nine in the last thirteen years, four alongside Marcus Gilmore on drums and Stephan Crumb on bass as part of some sort of solid unit or another. Over the years, this grouping has had a lot of time to feel each other out to make their distinct sound and Iyer speaks quite highly of their growth as a trio. "This band has been touring a lot in the last few years and it's reached a place that's substantially beyond where it was when we made Historicity (and I don't mean to say "beyond" in a sense that 'we're the greatest' or anything), a lot of experience has passed through us. That changes us. So it's just been an evolution partly because of what happened with Historicity which enabled us... suddenly people wanted to give us gigs. Suddenly we were touring a lot so we had hundreds of experiences in front of audiences. That is its own kind of education, it's more like a growth process. So I really just wanted to document what we sound like now which is a little different. Our priorities have adjusted and our aesthetic has kind of deepened. The way we interact has become all the more natural. And particularly playing in front of audiences, you get more of a sense of how to connect-- connect with each other and connect with the audience. And that's just kind of what I think is the main difference between the trio today and the trio three years ago. So the only goal was then to just document what that is right now..."

Accelerando most certainly does this, in addition to some original Iyer compositions the group also captures assorted songs from the likes of Flying Lotus and Stephen "Thundercat" Bruner, Henry Threadgill, Duke Ellington, and Michael Jackson. "What I've found when I take on a piece that people might expect to be outside of me like 'What's he doing playing a Michael Jackson song?', that I can kind of teach people something, or at least ask them to re-examine what they knew. I mean, I grew up with Michael Jackson. It's not like he's so far outside my experience. And also, Miles Davis covered him. So it's not like it's a radical thing. But you also have to realize what covers have always been in this area of music-- it's been about reaching deeper into your world. There's those two dynamics, I guess. On the one hand, you can reach far outside of your world like when we did "Somewhere" from West Side Story. You could see that on those terms. Then there's also, maybe you want to reach further in your world.

Vijay Iyer Trio - Human Nautre

"Like I got turned onto 'The Star of the Story', the Heatwave song, I found that because I was reading this blog by Prince Paul, this legendary producer [De La Soul, Gravediggaz, Big Daddy Kane] whose music I got into when I was 17 or so. So that was when I first started hearing his name and I realized basically he was the same age that I was (that was humbling). But some time early last year I saw some blogpost of his that was his favorite sample flips of all time. He listed this [A] Tribe [Called Quest] cut from "Verses from the Abstract" because of the way they sort of grabbed a really thin slice of 'The Star of the Story'. And I knew it was the band Heatwave because I knew some of their other songs but I had never heard this song so I went and found it and it was a mysterious song to me that I just kept listening to over and over again. I cultivated a new relationship with this piece that could have been in my life but hadn't been. I mean, I was very young when it first came out but I think it had its moment. There's also this relationship to the past that you find in the hip-hop community-- that whole crate digging mentality that reveals itself in the way music is put together there and that's something that influences all of us today, too. So I'm not immune to that. I'm 40 now, I've been listening to Prince Paul since I was 16. Before that I was listening to whatever-- Public Enemy, Run-D.M.C., Ice-T, 80s hip-hop, LL Cool J, Africa Bambatta, and all that stuff. That was part of my youth. Now that it's kind of evolved in a way that has an even deeper reflection on the past, it's actually kind of contiguous with the jazz aesthetic-- there's this way of reconsidering what's come before. Doing a version of a song isn't that different from sampling it."

Heatwave - The Star of the Story

Vijay Iyer Trio - The Star of the Story

Maintaining a kind of balance between keeping the vibrancy of live jazz and presenting a polished collection of works is a task Iyer bears in mind but only as seriously as necessary. "I just like making things that I like." There is little worry about being on the top of the charts or stoking more of his white hot "jazz fame" (the accolades surround Iyer and his trio most justifiably without them fretting over such things). It's in his honesty to his creativity that Iyer finds so much success.

"The way we make these records is basically capturing what is in essence the live moment. That's the ethos for making records in this area of music. It's kind of a snapshot of the moment. But then of course that moment somehow gets magnified, and multiplied, and reproduced and so on so there is a kind of a sense in which the liveness of it is killed, or at least embalmed in a kind of way that sucks the life out of it. But... the craft of making these kind of albums is to get around that soul-sucking aspect of it and still sort of reach people. There's a way to make records that reach people and that's still to feature people performing and doing what they do best which is making choices in the moment and letting those choices resound and letting them make the impact they have."

It is this focus on the music itself that makes things that are rather extraneous to any pure artist-- things like genre designation, artificial hype, or senseless bickering-- fall by the wayside. Especially on the subject of the naming and vitality of jazz (or perceived lack thereof), Iyer would much rather ignore all the claptrap that tends to pop up. "I think sounding a death knell for jazz is a marketing tactic. It doesn't actually have any connection to reality. There's a huge number of people in this area of music. In fact, more and more everyday-- people coming out of these education programs and discovering it in all sorts of new ways. There's a global circuit for the music. There are people performing all the time and all over the world. There's no sense in which it's dying. I don't see it dying anywhere. If anything, I see the opposite so I really honestly don't know what people are talking about."

Yet it is his constant awareness of his placement that allows him to objectively scope out the artistic scene he's in and flourish as he has. "I will say the infrastructure for the music is fragile, particularly in the US. So that's kind of the biggest problem that we have to face right now: there aren't a whole lot of gigs to be had in the US right now and there aren't really many places to hear or see the music that's not New York. It's not on many radio stations and it's not on TV except for very few exceptions. And it's not really performed in most of the continental US. It's usually hard to find if you don't live near a big city or some college campus that has some kind of substantial arts budget and also a curator who cares enough to cultivate this music. A lot of these arts presenters will have maybe two jazz concerts a year."

However, it's Vijay Iyer's steady nature that keeps him grounded in the idea that while he is always capturing the present moment in time, he is fully aware that each moment is still dependant on the ones before. Just as important, Iyer knows that cultural impact and context go hand in hand. Jazz is rooted in the black community, no matter what it's called. "I don't have much use for any name for the music because any name is going to reduce what it is. I have respect for the community that gave birth to the music and that is important to me, too. I usually call it African-American creative music or music that came out of that community or I try not to call it anything. Rather than try to focus on words, I try to focus on actions. A lot of the material that I work with in terms of just the details of how I put music together and also in terms of all the particular composers that I pay tribute to, it's all from that legacy and I think that if you look closely at what I've done, that speaks for itself. And then I also am interested in investigating what my own heritage is and how it might or might not relate to that legacy. That kind of has been an ongoing dynamic for me as well."

Ultimately, Vijay Iyer makes music that's all about connections, whether it be connections to moments, connections to artists, connections to communities, or connections to our very souls. It is because he is so calm, so attentive, but also at times so flippant, that allows him (especially with Crump and Gilmore in tow) to so adeptly find new and inventive ways to make those connections. Even the idea of standards is pliable in relation to the importance of capturing the moment. "I think we have to look at what the role of what standards was in the first place. It wasn't to put those songs on a pedestal. It never was. It wasn't like, 'Oh, Cole Porter is so great. I want to play only Cole Porter songs.' It was never about that. It was always a method of transformation-- these essentially found objects from culture. These pre-existing texts were re-purposed, were put through a completely different aesthetic and method. They were completely transformed into something else. In a way, those songs were not the point. It was more about the transformation. That's all that really needs to be taught-- that approach to what's in your world. There's also, in terms of how to play changes and song forms, that's a body of knowledge that was developed as a result of that approach. It's important to understand that those methods were developed not to honor the songs but to honor the self and also to give people the tools to express themselves. So that's all that these songs are, in terms of this tradition, all of those songs that came from outside of that tradition, all that they were were vehicles. But it also didn't matter what the vehicle was. What mattered was that it had a melody and maybe that it had some pre-existing place in culture that had been by someone like Bird or Monk or Ahmad Jamal or Miles Davis or Coltrane or any of those artists kind of re-entering that space saying I can transform this into something that's different. That's more about us. 'All the Things You Would Be' or 'My Favorite Things', not 'Their Favorite Things'. It's about kind of not redirecting that energy."

Such is the way of a man who is so securely in his time, the anti-time traveller because he not only goes with the flow but can dash through the rapids without breaking a sweat because he is always aware of every bend the river is taking. Vijay Iyer isn't trying to keep jazz music in the past or ponder all that much about its future. His best work has always been about the here and now, about exploring the world around us, making decisions in real time, and most importantly, just making stuff he likes. Judging from his body of work, with Accelerando being the most recent example, the man likes really nice stuff.

Anthony Dean-Harris hosts the modern jazz radio show, The Line-Up, Fridays at 9pm CST on 91.7 FM KRTU San Antonio. More of his writing can be found at his blog, In Retrospect and you can also follow him on Twitter.

Jon Wertheim, a jazz drummer and (somewhat) acclaimed jazz writer, can be found at his jazz blog, Rehearsing The Blues, and on Twitter. He has released one album, Returning.