his genre-bending music, pianist knows no borders
By Siddhartha Mitter, Globe Correspondent | June 26, 2005
If there is a jazz musician of the moment, Vijay Iyer may well be
The Indian-American pianist has gone in the past year from underground
favorite to emerging mainstream sensation with a gripping, thought-provoking
sound and a body of work that includes straight-ahead post-bop efforts,
avant-garde collective improvisation, and collaborations with poets,
rappers, and DJs.
Two acclaimed quartet recordings, 2003's ''Blood Sutra" and
this year's ''Reimagining," have burnished Iyer's credentials
among the jazz orthodox. And ''In What Language?," a genre-bending
ensemble work written with hip-hop composer Mike Ladd, has proven
a double success as a CD and an ambitious multimedia performance.
Yet the prolific Iyer, who brings his quartet to the Regattabar
on Wednesday, never formally trained as a pianist. Born in 1971
and raised in Rochester, N.Y., by professional-class Indian immigrant
parents, he studied classical violin and picked up piano on his
own. But a music career wasn't initially in the cards. By 22, Iyer
already had a master's degree from the University of California
at Berkeley -- in physics.
A series of encounters in the fertile Bay Area jazz scene altered
his course. The first was with the innovative saxophonist and composer
Steve Coleman, a local fixture and leader of the M-Base collective,
who recognized Iyer's intellect and desire and took him under his
''Steve really whipped me into shape," Iyer recalls on the
phone from his home in Manhattan. ''He forced me to really look
at my weaknesses. I got a lot more interested in rhythm from working
with him. He really puts the drums in the center of the group; he
composes for the drummer."
As a Coleman acolyte, Iyer enjoyed the chance to play with and learn
from numerous jazz luminaries when they came through the Bay Area.
Of no less importance was another Bay Area collective, Asian Improv,
that grouped Asian-American jazz musicians and helped them perform
and release their music. ''Asian Improv really embraced me,"
says Iyer. ''They provided an example of how I could really progress
as a creative artist in this medium."
The group's leader, Francis Wong, played tenor saxophone on Iyer's
first record, ''Memorophilia," recorded in 1995.
That year, Iyer made perhaps the most crucial connection of all
in alto saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa, another Indian-American
artist in whom he recognized a kind of soul brother. They would
go on to become constant collaborators.
''It was instantly clear that we were in this together," Iyer
says. ''Here we were, two people of South Indian descent trying
to find our way in the universe of creative music. It was a perfect
That term, ''creative music," is a clue to what Iyer wants
to achieve. It's jazz code for a big-tent vision that's as serious
about traditional forms as it is aggressive in seeking out change.
It takes Iyer just a few bars to demolish the false distinction
between ''cerebral" and ''emotional" music. His approach
is both at once. It has a rigorous, geometric quality, the sort
of searching tone that induces both melancholy and insight, and
moments of rapture that are nothing short of spine-tingling. The
key to all three effects is rhythm, which Iyer establishes by means
of vamps and cyclical forms, rolling the keys like waves in a steady
wind. It's a music of momentum, always lurching forward even in
its quietest phases.
Like his predecessors in the ''percussive" school of jazz piano
-- Thelonious Monk, Andrew Hill, Randy Weston, Muhal Richard Abrams,
Cecil Taylor, all of whom he cites as influences -- Iyer has taken
on the challenge of generating rhythm and phrase, structure and
form. It means that he rarely lays out, nor does he take many conventional
solos, when playing in a group. But he can also use rhythm and repetition
to produce dense, haunting atmospherics working at his piano alone.
The current quartet gathers Iyer, Mahanthappa, bassist Stephan Crump,
and the remarkable 18-year-old drummer Marcus Gilmore, a grandson
of venerable Boston drummer Roy Haynes. As Iyer's roiling sound
propels Mahanthappa's saxophone over the turbulence, his soaring
melodic style redolent of John Coltrane, the two display the sort
of intuitive connection that produces great improvised music.
That intensity of feeling between two Indian-American artists raises
the question of just what is Indian about their music. After all,
jazz and Indian music have a history of creative encounters, from
the raga-inspired later work of Coltrane and some of his disciples
to the guitar-meets-tabla stylings of John McLaughlin's Shakti projects.
The emergence of Desi (as Indian-Americans call themselves) performers
within the mainstream jazz tradition, however, is new.
But Amardeep Singh, a cultural critic at Lehigh University, says
that the success of Iyer and Mahanthappa is sparking a new interest
in jazz among Indian-Americans.
''That said, it's a mistake to think of Iyer as somehow doing Indian
jazz, just because of his background. The inflections from the Indian
classical tradition in Iyer's work are very subtle; it's entirely
possible to listen to the music without knowing about it."
At the same time, Mahanthappa's album ''Mother Tongue" consists
of interpolations of answers to the nonsense question ''Do you speak
Indian?" in seven of India's principal languages.
But, Iyer says, ''The relationship to Indian culture isn't always
one of valorization or ethnic pride. It's complicated. That's a
healthier way to imagine heritage, tradition, or to reimagine your
Iyer is using jazz -- the American music par excellence -- to reimagine
his American identity.
''I grew up playing with 'Star Wars' figures, eating masala dosas,
and playing Rachmaninoff on the violin," he says. ''And I was
also this big Prince fan. So what does that make me? I'm always
trying to complicate the picture. And to say that it's OK to be
at home in that world, in that complex hybrid space that we all