A Brief History of Vijay Iyer


The past year has certainly been eventful for Vijay Iyer, but one recent instance in particular encapsulates the 39-year-old pianist/composer’s special confluence of achievement, intellect, and globetrotting cool. A month ago, GQ India named him one of the “50 Most Influential Global Indians,” easily a first for a guy making a good bit of his living in jazz clubs. The selection, further heralding the breakthrough success of last year’s widely touted Vijay Iyer Trio disc Historicity, prompted a self-deprecating zinger from Iyer on his Facebook page: “I’m guessing I’m number 47 or 48,” he wrote, “somewhere between [former Treasury Department undersecretary and would-be Social Security hatchet man] Neel Kashkari and the butt-dialer . . . pretty surreal.”

Downplaying the accomplishment doesn’t mean Iyer is not proud of it. On the contrary, it’s vindication for choosing the path of most resistance when he could easily have ridden his Yale degree in physics and Ph.D. candidacy at UC Berkeley to a different outcome. The outlines of his rolling, slashingly funky piano style were already in place when, after a stint in the Bay Area, he hit New York City in 1998, though he admits to early trepidation about his new career choice, bred as much by the relative absence of Indian-American artistic models in America as by how difficult survival on the jazz scene can be.

“There’d been a history in this country of having visiting artists from India, but the diasporic experience—where you’re born and raised here—is fundamentally different than that,” the Rochester, New York, native says. “When I decided to be an artist at 23, though I’d been playing violin and piano much of my life, there just weren’t places to find direction. It wasn’t a case of, ‘Oh, I think I’m gonna be like so-and-so.’ More like, ‘Wait a minute . . . is this even possible?’ ” Though, of course, he found inspiration anyway: “Hearing Randy Weston’s African Rhythms Trio sort of transliterate the language of African drumming to the piano was pivotal. He did it in very specific ways, which got me thinking about how to vibe on the percussive aspects of music from my own heritage, which is South Indian.”

Dozens of albums, collaborations, and sideman work later (most notably opposite alto-saxist Rudresh Mahanthappa and in trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith’s quartet), creative growth seems to have put Iyer in the mood to take stock. In lesser hands, a record as thematically varied as Historicity might have turned out arbitrarily eclectic rather than dynamically potent. But the mix is astonishing, as the trio’s nod to the Southeast Asian diaspora (a reading of M.I.A.’s “Galang”) meshes with Iyer’s groove-oriented roots (Stevie Wonder’s “Big Brother,” the A Tribe Called Quest–associated “Mystic Brew”) and explorations of jazz iconography both mainstream and avant (Leonard Bernstein’s “Somewhere,” Julius Hemphill’s “Dogon A.D.,” Andrew Hill’s “Smoke Stack”).

“I think there was a time when modern music was sort of a lens on the past,” Iyer says, explaining his method. “Not necessarily a re-enactment of it, but something that refracts, distills, transforms it . . . ultimately making it new. I’m a product of that school more than the uptown/downtown, traditionalist vs. throw-everything-out paradigm shift in jazz over the past 20 years.”

It’s easy to hear what Iyer means when listening to Solo, his latest disc. For sheer cohesion, it tops Historicity, and since he’s alone at the piano throughout, his reflective streak is telegraphed. The album is almost evenly split between originals and jazz-repertoire classics (Thelonious Monk, Duke Ellington, Jimmy Van Heusen); its one pop piece, Michael Jackson’s “Human Nature,” opens the disc by employing classicism in clever disguise. “I didn’t plan this, but the album sequence ended up being a loose chronology of when each piece entered my life,” he says, recalling how he developed the subtle, abstractionist take on stride piano that courses through his version of the showtune “Darn That Dream.” “Do you know Verona Rag, that Andrew Hill solo recital from the ’80s?” he asks. “That’s the first place I heard that tune, a period of his work I think is undervalued.” The track’s sly early-jazz accents become unabashedly robust on the next piece, Ellington’s “Black and Tan Fantasy.”

For all the invention of the familiar pieces, however, it’s Iyer’s own compositions that showcase the full range of his gifts. They’re as dense as you’d expect from a piano expressionist, but his style creates warmth by exhibiting contrast: On “Prelude: Heartpiece,” “Autoscopy,” and “Patterns,” he offsets low-end raga-like droning with melodic runs as weightless as clouds. Solo‘s self-penned liner notes reveal the story behind “Autoscopy”: The title “refers to a type of out-of-body experience where you observe your actions from outside of (usually above) your body.” Has Iyer experienced this? “Yes,” he says matter-of-factly. “But I think it’s a phenomenon that music—or perhaps any engagement with creativity—is particularly well-suited to induce. If it’s just out of your reach, you’re looking for it all the time.”

Vijay Iyer plays (le) poisson rouge solo September 10 and the Miller Theatre at Columbia University October 9 with Craig Taborn