Vijay Iyer: The Piano Is Infinite

July 8, 2016

In this century, no jazz pianist has received more glowing accolades than Vijay Iyer, not only for the intensity of his improvisations but also for his large-scale compositions: He's received a MacArthur Fellowship, an Alpert Award, 20-plus critics’ poll victories, and a faculty position at Harvard, as well as many other prizes. Born to Tamil immigrants and raised in a suburb of Rochester, N.Y., Iyer graduated from Yale with a degree in math and physics, then headed to UC Berkeley for his doctorate in physics. Within two years he had left the Ph.D. program in favor of music. His latest album, a collaboration with the septuagenarian trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith entitled A Cosmic Rhythm With Each Stroke, is Iyer’s fourth release on ECM Records.

Vijay Iyer at the Skirball Center at NYU, in 2011 during warm up before a show.
Photo: Bart Babinski
How did your relationship with Wadada Leo Smith begin?

We met in California in the ’90s, but the first time he asked me to play with him was in 2005, with a new version of his Golden Quartet. I’d been recommended by [trombonist and composer] George Lewis, and Wadada had also been checking me out on his own.

I remember it being a bit of a trial by fire—not that he was judging me, but it was a pretty new musical context for me to function in. It was like nothing I’d ever experienced in terms of space, and sound, and pacing, and his way of organizing music.

By then I had worked with Steve Coleman, Roscoe Mitchell, Butch Morris, Amiri Baraka, and it was still not like any of that. We soon found ways to play together, and I came to realize how carefully he listens, and how much he knows.

His compositions aside, did Wadada influence your approach to the piano?

My work with Roscoe kind of acted as training for playing with Wadada; there’s a similarity in how to listen and stay out of each other’s way. Wadada likes the gravity of chords—stacks of notes, vertical sonorities, and stasis. He helped me open my sense of harmonic possibility.

I remember one time we had these chords that were massive stacks, and sort of unplayable because they were so spread out. But they were also really specific. I asked him “Where do you find all these chords?” and he answered “They’re all in the same place.”

Photo: Bart Babinski
And Roscoe?

Working with Roscoe blew my playing wide open. When I got back from my first tour with him, I had cassette recordings of the gigs that I played for people I’d worked with for years, and said, “Guess who this is.” It didn’t sound like what they knew of me; it was like a door had opened to a whole other wing of the house.

For that tour, in 2001, Roscoe called me kind of out of the blue. He didn’t really know me, but he knew about me through [pianist and Mitchell collaborator] Craig Taborn. All the gigs were in Italy, and it was all last-minute, so the only ticket available got me there just in time for the first sound check. I had been a huge fan of Roscoe’s throughout the ’90s; he would routinely change my life in the course of a solo. But I didn’t know the specificity of what he was after.

He likes me to play clustering events, and then there’s stoppage. He didn’t want chords. It was about motion and flow. I remember at some sections he kept telling me to stop playing; I realized that whatever was permissible, I wasn’t finding it. I felt like everything I played was wrong.

Then something just happened on the third night; I guess it was kind of do or die, and it wasn’t even intentional. Something just cracked open for me. It was a matter of hearing harmony as emerging from counterpoint, and also emerging from resonance, where you allow time for the sounds that are struck together to be heard; it takes you to a slower time. The way I experienced it, it was like I was observing it as an out-of-body experience.

I would guess that working with Manfred Eicher at ECM has also affected your music, as it has for so many other artists.

I’ve been allowed to make quiet music; or rather, allowed to let it be heard in a different way, with more dynamic range. When you’re playing in a rhythm section, you’re sort of sparring with the drums and attacking the piano with a certain force: It requires power to get the instrument vibrating in the same rhythm with the snare drum. So in jazz especially, we tend to push the piano up to that edge to give it an edge, timbrally. But then you find all this depth and possibility in the quietness; there are so many subtleties and gradations in timbre.

The piano is infinite, of course, but because I never had lessons, I always felt I was sort of a “remedial” pianist, and I always feel that I’m catching up to the instrument. You realize what it means to allow more silence into the picture. I think my trio was headed there already, so it’s nice to work with someone who hears on that level. When we were recording Break Stuff, Manfred would point out certain things I was doing with timbre. These are not so conscious for me; it’s still intuitive. He would point out “the way you’re playing that D,” and say that we had to use that take because of that D. The listening process becomes a part of the music.

Photo: John Rogers
Wait – you never took piano lessons?

I had violin lessons growing up. We had a piano in the house and I played it by ear. But I didn’t have any agenda or purpose. It was just the “unofficial” thing I would do around the house. I was always improvising on piano, because no one ever took away that freedom, and there wasn’t some reputation I had to live up to; I got to follow my ear, to follow my head. In high school I played in rock bands, and then my senior year I wanted to play in the jazz ensemble, which is why I had to learn about this music.

But if you weren’t already into jazz, why did you want to join the jazz ensemble?

It seemed like they’d let me improvise. I did take music theory at the Eastman School when I was 13 or 14, so I had been trying to tackle this thing called jazz. I didn’t know I could have a life in music. I played because I loved it. My immigrant parents didn’t come here to send a kid into the arts; they invested in my education so I would have stability. And in the ’80s, you didn’t really see people like me in the arts anyway.

You’re referring to people of Indian ancestry. But hasn’t that background—along with your undergrad degree in physics—played a role in your music?

You know, I get a little defensive about this, because the question usually comes from a strange place. It’s a complicated dynamic because people associate Asian-Americans with math and science. They always call my music “mathematical,” no matter what I play. It’s kind of offensive—doubly offensive, actually. It assumes that everything I do is mathematical because I’m Asian, and on the other hand it assumes that anything an African-American musician does is not mathematical.

I’ve answered these questions hundreds of times now. In the early ‘90s I became interested in Indian music—not so that I could mine it, but because I wanted to be able to play it with Indian musicians. It was less about heritage than community. In the mid-’90s I cultivated a more conscious connection with that music, as a listener, so I could hear it in a more informed way. In Silicon Valley, lots of South Indian families hosted concerts and everyone knew the repertoire, the ragas, and the talas. I just learned as much as I could within the context of the community. With Indian music, everyone needs to know the rhythms, and that involves what you could call a mathematical approach, subdividing the beat, But that kind of combinatorial approach to rhythm and form is just part of the music’s folk roots, not cerebral but intuitive, and so it is omnipresent in my music.

Measurements are involved in the making of anything—a cake, a martini, a house. You have to measure quantities with a certain amount of accuracy so that they fit. But that’s not what the point of it is.

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