Vijay Iyer: Interview

!t has been my distinct honor to interview the boundlessly innovative pianist/composer Vijay Iyer for the Pi Recordings Blog over the past week. Mr. Iyer’s most recent recordings, Tragicomic (Sunnyside Records) and Door (from the collaborative trio Fieldwork, Pi Recordings), are racking up rave reviews and positions on best-of 2008 lists as we near the end of the year.

Without further ado…

RB: Your recent release Tragicomic has been receiving much critical acclaim recently, but most of the music on the record is actually a few years old. What projects are you currently working on? What can we expect from you in the near future?

VI: Well, there are two albums that are being mixed right now. One is the first album by the trio Tirtha, a collaboration between myself, guitarist Prasanna, and tabla player Nitin Mitta. The other is basically the next “Vijay Iyer” album, with some newer piano trio music with Marcus Gilmore and Stephan Crump, as well as some new material for a quintet, which consists of that trio plus Prasanna and trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire but sort of has more of a rock vibe to it at times. The quintet music was commissioned by the Chicago Jazz Festival and I was really happy with that group. It’s going to be an ongoing thing, I hope, assuming we get more gigs!

RB: It seems that your recordings consistently feature bands. Comment on the role and importance of consistent personnel (a band) in what you do, in jazz, and in music in general.

VI: Well, I don’t know about music in general! But in my own experience I just want to be surrounded by people I can trust. That takes a while to develop and it’s usually forged in the thick of things, in the course of performance, on tour, or in extensive rehearsal. Now when I say “people I can trust,” it’s not that I want them to do my bidding. It’s more that I want them to be involved in co-constructing the music, so that it really becomes ours instead of “mine.”

I saw Wayne Shorter’s group at Carnegie Hall last week, and I was really impressed by how well they did this. They’ve developed a lot over the years and now it’s really like they’re building something for you in real time. They’re not just playing “over” tunes - they are dealing with the fundamentals, the building blocks of musicI guess that brings us to what you called “music in general”! Anyway, the point is that they built that trust and developed that bond, so that they can move as an ensemble with intelligence, and take action as individuals that has weight and consequence.

RB: I’m sure these personalities greatly influence your thinking and actions as an improviser. Give us a glimpse into your mind during the improvisational process..

VI: Well, I’d hope that the music itself is viewed as an audible trace of the thought process. I think that improvisers strive for a unity of thought and action. Muhal Richard Abrams has an album called “The Visibility of Thought,” which seems relevant here.

It’s said often and it’s mostly true - if you’re “thinking” in words when you’re in that moment then you’re somehow not fully present. I say “mostly true” because the mind is vast and multiple, and really can’t be encapsulated by a statement like that. I’ve had moments in performance where there seemed to be “chatter” (i.e. distracted thought-fixations) that I would think would undermine the musical process, but somehow my “body” (which includes my mind) kept playing anyway. So then who am I? The guy who’s worrying about what person X in the 3rd row is thinking, or the guy who’s ignoring those worries and playing anyway, or the guy who’s watching both of those things happen?

That’s why, I think, you can’t really look “into” someone’s mind. You can just get snapshots of it from various angles. And I think the music itself, and particularly one’s improvised musical gestures, provide one such snapshot.

RB: Your compositions, though often specific and intricately woven, provide a framework for these interactions among members of the ensemble. You’ve also written in a wide variety of contexts, from your main working ensembles to your collaborations with Mike Ladd, as well as compositions for orchestras, string quartets, and (more recently) scores for theatre and film. Describe your approach to composing.

VI: I was just listening to In What Language?, from five years ago, and kind of couldn’t believe how much we did. The rewarding thing about it, which I think gets back to something I said earlier about what you called “bands,” is that other people bring out aspects of you that you can’t always access by yourself, and that can surprise you. I listened to it because I’ve been working with Mike Ladd on a new proposal for our next collaboration, and wanted to refresh my memory about what we’d done.

Anyway, composition in my case is usually about creating a situation for things like that to happen. But even creating the situation means you have to have some insight into what is possible. So maybe that’s what composition is - an inkling of what might happen, followed by its realization.

RB: As we both touched on before, you’ve written music for a variety of different ensembles to be performed in a variety of different settings. How does the situation influence the way you write?

VI: It’s generally a question of creating spaces in which people can take action. So it’s really about the individuals involved - what they have to offer, what their comfort zones are, what their strengths are, and what they are going to teach me, and how I can build around them to empower them to set forth all of that. It’s also about orchestration - exploring the full range of the sound of a given ensemble. Those are related, really, because the individuals are represented in the music by the sounds they make. Then there’s the larger question of what the music is about, and why it exists. Without trying to answer those two questions right now, I will say that they do affect the sound of things.

RB: Hopefully we’ll touch on them later in this interview! While you have departed significantly from this territory in other projects, the instrumentation of your main working ensembles (trio and quartet) has consisted of all acoustic instruments. What factors motivate this decision?

VI: Well they are and they aren’t. The bass and piano are almost always amplified, and I definitely take that into account when creating the music we play. But as for a more direct answer, what I really want is the immediacy and expressiveness of these instruments. Acoustic instruments have a broad range, timbrally and dynamically, and as you know I like to explore their extremes. And it’s not just a matter of turning a knob or hitting a switch. With acoustic instruments you can create variation in the course of a phrase. It’s just more supple in the realm of sound generation, and you have more real-time control. I’m not a luddite and I love playing electric and electronic instruments, but I’ve spent more time at the piano than anywhere else. I’ve certainly hit Gladwell’s “10,000 hours” benchmark. That means that I have particular expertise that is tied to the piano. I have found those subtleties there that I haven’t found yet in other places.

RB: The music certainly imparts a perspective on the realm of possibilities that the (well, somewhat) acoustic trio and quartet instrumentation have to offer. Many listeners who don’t have much exposure to improvised music are shocked! Nevertheless, many of them have wondered what your music would sound like with electric instruments

VI: Well, it would be louder. It’s funny, my group often rehearses on a rhodes at Stephan’s place, but I keep breaking it. It’s as if I want it to do something it doesn’t do. We have performed in more electrified form, and I love it. And I’ve played plenty of other gigs on Rhodes, synths, laptops, live processing, and so on. I guess it’s just that aspects of the “jazz” sound involve that subtlety of touch and timbre and dynamic, and especially that ability to get vanishingly quiet, that I like to preserve.

RB: Here is an excerpt from a recent interview with the band RATATAT:

JustArts: How would you classify yourselves?

Ratatat: The opposite of jazz.

JustArts: Your music does have jazz influences in it. What makes you say it’s the opposite?

Ratatat: I just hate jazz. We both do.

JustArts: What do you hate about jazz?

Ratatat: I hate everything. I like jazz trumpet, [though]. NoodlingI cant keep up with it, and I hate the saxophone.

RB: I have seen an increase in the incidence of this perspective among people my age. While I can’t speak for RATATAT, I also find that many of them have very little exposure to jazz. In fact, a few people who used to share this perspective really enjoyed your music; while we were listening to it, one even commented, “I didn’t know jazz could be like this!”

People seem to be listening to all kinds of music these days, but for some reason, jazz doesn’t seem (to me) to be as well represented. Why do you think that might be?

VI: Yeah, jazz is becoming the new mime: hating it becomes hip again. Someone from Live Nation was quoted as saying something to that effect too. It’s not a new thing - there was a band 20-odd years ago called “Johnny Hates Jazz.”

There’s still a contingent of the “jazz community” who want the music to be a history lesson, which can be alienating for listeners who’ve grown used to music being pure entertainment. Maybe from the other side there’s also a general skepticism/disbelief/fear of the kind of expertise it takes to improvise a bunch of notes in real time (a.k.a. “noodling”). We’re sort of in a national all-time low in expertise right now. It could be tied to an anti-intellectual stance that was brought on by, well, any number of things. But things are of course looking up, since Nov 4.

And sometimes jazz people really don’t know when to stop. I’m not talking about Coltrane. I’m talking about people for whom jazz simply equals heroic/athletic soloing, and the aspiring noodlers who love them. That’s anti-intellectual, too. If the composerly tradition within jazz were more appreciated, then we might not have this problem.

Maybe there are just too many jazz musicians. I might even have to agree with that, myself.

RB: As I said earlier, I find the root of these perspectives among my peers to almost always be in ignorance, and ignorance is certainly not the road to expertise. Nevertheless, many people I’ve spoken with who share this opinion find that the limited amount of jazz they have heard represents that perspective. They equate the music with athleticism, and with egocentrism. While I wish they’d expose themselves to the vast amount of more interesting music within the genre, I can’t help but think that it isn’t their fault. Often, other music seems to sound more communal to them, more about creating something together, and I daresay that repeated exposure to the kind of music you just described would have killed my interest, too.

This brings me to the question of how the many groups labeled as jazz that these people would find interesting could be better matched with their markets

VI: I don’t know about matching artists with markets. I’m more interested in seeing artists do things of consequence in the world, than seeing them be validated by a marketplace. I must say, I don’t listen to much new jazz albums myself. For the most part I seem to stop around 1990. I do hear music live, but I was even wondering recently if I’ve reached the limit of how much new music I can listen to honestly in one lifetime.

RB: If the things that artists do are to be things of consequence, it would help if they could broaden their exposure to people who would be interested.

VI: It’s possible that lots of “great” music doesn’t have much of a market.

RB: Certainly. But is that a good thing?

VI: Most of the “great” music of the western canon has a pitiful market. But it had and continues to have a system of patronage that sustains it.

RB: How are you defining “great” here?

VI: I put it in quotes. It’s not defined - it’s just tossed around!

RB: Right, but it must mean something!

VI: Well, it could just mean that some critical mass of influential people think it’s great. But what do they know?

RB: Another way of asking this question is, what do you mean by “consequence”?

VI: That’s a tough one too, but it seems easier than “great.” Consequential acts would seem to have their own impact, resonances and ripple effects in the world. It seems like a more flexible concept, because it’s not defined necessarily by the sheer number of people who see or hear it, AND it’s not referring specifically to an economic notion of value.

RB: but by some gauge of the impact it has on the people it does reach?

VI: It’s more about influence, perhaps? That can be intangible but you can follow it through generations of artists. Couple of examples:

Steve Coleman, I find, is “underrated” in today’s “market.” He still tours in Europe and basically does what he wants, and is hugely respected, but seems to me to be undervalued in American music. I mean, this guy is a pioneer in so many different ways, but you don’t read about him very often in the jazz magazines, and you can’t very easily find his albums here, and he very rarely plays any of the festivals in North America. He’s barely on the radar here anymore. Most of my students have not heard his music, confuse him with other players, and barely know who he is or what he has done, which to me is a travesty! But, think of all the artists he influenced or impacted directly: just on the current “scene,” Dafnis Prieto, Ravi Coltrane, Ralph Alessi, Roy Hargrove, The Roots, myself of course, Rudresh Mahanthappa, Imani Winds, Ethel, Andy Milne, Josh Roseman, Tyshawn Sorey, Miguel Zenon, Yosvany Terry, David Gilmore, to say nothing of the European acolytes like Aka Moon, Octurn, or colleagues from his own generation like Branford, Smitty, Cassandra Now think of all the people that THOSE people influenced or will influence.

For another example, Rafiq Bilal, who used to run a space in the Bay Area called the Upper Room. Basically, he started his own community center with the intent of creating a positive environment for art and activism. No one knows about him and he never had a “market” exactly, but to quote his son Mohammed, “Many of the our greatest artists got their start and/or were shaped at the Upper Room- Goapele, Martin Luther, Saul Williams, Mohammed Bilal, Kimiko Joy, Will Power, Midnight Voices, Michael Franti, Ledisi, Heiro, Robert Henry Jonhson, Housing Authority, etc. Mind Motion was spinning at the Upper Room years before being on KMEL.” These folks are all west coast legends, some of whom have made it out here and in turn impacted the world in their own ways.

That to me is “consequence.”

RB: Billy Hart was making the same point about Mr. Coleman recently, and I couldn’t agree more with both of you. Nonetheless, are you of the opinion that creative musicians shouldn’t worry about reaching wider audiences? Is it simply the responsibility of those who have been inundated with athletic or watered-down examples of jazz to put down whatever else they might be doing and seek out musicians who are “off the radar”, or is there some compromise point? There are people out there who would be very interested to hear this musicdo we simply forget about them and move on?

VI: Well listen, there’s a huge amount of music out here. I am starting to feel old / show my age by saying that I honestly don’t know how people find music anymore. I mean, I know there are lots of networking sites and whatnot where people can share “playlists” and such, but that starts to put a premium on the sensation of newness and it just becomes a fashion cycle. It was said by someone that art and fashion are the “froth” of culture, the ephemeral part that turns over constantly. Some sociologists found that in conditions like the ones we live in now, popularity is essentially random, among music that suitably satisfies some minimal criteria; popularity aggregates exponentially in a sort of “rich-get-richer” system, where people decide that they like an artist because other people like them, too. When you talk about popularity in a group (as opposed to isolated enthusiasm or appreciation), there is certainly a degree of randomness involved.

And that doesn’t help or appeal to people like my colleagues and myself, who are trying to stay in the game for a long time and make music that lasts. I believe and respect the idea that music is a social enterprise, but it seems like we’re facing a certain tyranny of the crowd here. Music of the sort that I’ve come to like, and that I’ve been trying to make, is actually quite fragile, I think.

In saying this I didn’t mean to refute the idea that people can like my music who don’t normally have access to it, or to deny that this is a problem in general, or to imply that I don’t care about it. I totally agree with you, and I’ve said in the past that all we really need is the opportunity to get in front of people and play for them. I can’t tell you how many times someone has said to me after a concert, “I don’t (like)/(know anything about)/(understand)/(appreciate) jazz but I love your music.” I also get a lot of jazz fans who will say things like, “I’ve (never heard of you)/(never heard an Indian guy play jazz)/(heard of you but never checked you out before), but I love your music.” Or: “I didn’t understand what you were doing at all but it really spoke to me.” I’m definitely not alone in these experiences, and the issue is not unique to me.

So if you really want an answer to your question of how to connect artists to markets, the answer is simple: tour a lot, do tons of gigs, sell albums at shows. It’s not so easy to do that with jazz in the US, particularly if you need pianos; venues are limited and money can be very light. So then, the answer is simpler still: spend money. But what money? Answer: money from record labels, grants, or (increasingly now) one’s own personal stash.

You seem interested in a larger question - how do we inaugurate a new community of listeners? “College-age serious listeners of music” (c.a.s.l.m.) - how do you reach them with this stuff? I would turn the question back at you, since perhaps you are more poised to have some real insight into this community, and to affect the conditions under which they find music. (Jaded professionals are still stuck in this rut of wondering, for example, do c.a.s.l.m.’s spend money on music? If not, they might be prone to ask, what’s in it for them?)

RB: [editors note: The questions Vijay posed in the last paragraph will be the subject of my next blog entry]

I’m certainly not implying that the music should change

VI: Nor am I. I’m just saying that survival, really, becomes the name of the game. And I’m not saying that to place myself in some underdog position.

RB: I’m more trying to get at the fact that there may be a much broader potential audience for the music as it exists. Furthermore, that audience may provide support that increases the chances of survival for creative musicians.

VI: That may be true; there’s already a broad audience, in fact. Allegedly we played for 30,000 people in Chicago.

RB: Wow! Now thats what I’m talking about

VI: Yeah, it was deep! Anyway, more to the point, I’m able to tour and record from year to year, so someone must be hearing this stuff. I don’t know whether the jazz record business sustains itself very well, but I do think that there’s interest in the music even though it has virtually no coverage, support, or infrastructure in this country. At least Obama’s said he’s going to invite some musicians to the White House!

RB: On a related note, discuss the following statement: “Jazz is America’s classical music”.

VI: I was just talking about this with George Lewis on Thanksgiving. I don’t know if Billy Taylor invented that sentence but it definitely became his meme of choice. What purpose did that serve, you have to wonder? To strive to be treated as a sort of junior version of European classical music? We can do better than that. Jazz is, to say the least, one of the most consequential 20th century cultural phenomena to emerge in America.

RB: From speaking with those I know to hold that view, I gather that they are looking for an equivalent respect

VI: Well, they won’t get it that way. I suppose it worked for a handful of them - Dr. Taylor himself, and Marsalis & co. - all safely ensconced at one institution or another, but it didn’t really help the music itself. It leads you to believe that the utterance is some kind of strategic self-preserving gesture.

But I don’t mean to lay waste to all their efforts. I think it was born of a time where such an idea could feel like a mission, a causea rallying cry, even. It just failed to evolve with the times, and now it’s just uttered reflexively, even admonishingly. And a lot of people who said stuff like that willfully wrote off later developments in the music. Would they say this about, say, Miles Davis circa 1981? Or Cecil Taylor, or the Art Ensemble of Chicago?

RB: The idea of jazz as a “history lesson” seems to be well received by open-armed institutions of higher learning. You consider yourself to be largely self-taught, yet you also mentioned your students. What are your thoughts on jazz education, specifically with regards to how current trends in the area relate to historic ones?

VI: Well, I’ve been an official NYU faculty member in the jazz program for three semesters now. I’ve been on the New School adjunct faculty list for a while, but NYU has a greater impact on my life because I have more extended interactions with the students.

I’ve started to realize that the scene has been changing a lot lately. There aren’t really the opportunities for apprenticeship that one used to have with the likes of Blakey, Betty Carter, and so on, so we’ve lost a certain amount of generational teaching that musicians need. There are almost no chances to put their technical expertise in that more worldly perspective anymore. So I am starting to see that in my own humble way I can offer something more like that.

And I must say, I don’t mean to aggrandize my own level of understanding of the world. But I’ve come at music largely through these other channels, and I’ve spent some quality time on and off the bandstand with elder musicians, innovators of the last three or four decades. So I think I bring something else to the table that in a lot of cases it lacks.

I have to say that when we visited Oberlin earlier this year, I was amazed by the stellar faculty. There I am puttering around onstage at this workshop, and I look out and see your teachers Billy Hart, Gary Bartz, and Marcus Belgrave in the audience! What an amazing situation. So you guys over there are getting a different taste of things than what many of today’s burgeoning musicians are able to get.

RB: It certainly is. You mentioned the lack of apprenticeship opportunities, and it is noteworthy that you have employed many a young musician in bands of your own. Nevertheless, there is also the rock band model: get a group together, write and rehearse music, and drive around the country playing wherever you can until you meet your audience. Sure, its grueling and not financially rewarding, but alas, we (meaning, at least, my peers and I) are young!

VI: Yes, there’s a lot to learn in that. In some ways the Art Ensemble followed a model more like that. They also learned from their elders and their community, in the years prior to that.

RB: which is also extremely important, valuable, and rewarding.

VI: I think they also were complete individuals, every one of them, and really thought differently about music and performance anyway. Because a lot of bands are just reinventing things. I can’t tell a lot of it apart, and it’s not for lack of trying. By “it” I just mean music today. It clusters around genre, but within genres there’s a fair amount of sameness.

RB: Many musicians work very hard to overcome what they perceive to be their weaknesses, but others credit similar traits with the underpinnings of their sound. A frequently cited example is how Miles Davis abandoned trying to sound like Dizzy Gillespie after realizing that he was hearing his ideas in the middle register. I once heard Bill Frisell talk about how he had a similar experience after the first time he heard John McLaughlin. Tell us about a musical weakness and/or a unique musical trait of yours and discuss your interaction with it.

VI: Well I was never a particularly fast player, and so I’ve always been a little shy about my technique. But over the years I’ve developed ways of expressing that are more about sound, texture, density, and space. It’s basically a more composerly approach. That comes from a lineage of pianists who did that - Monk, Duke Ellington, Andrew Hill, Randy Weston, Muhal, and Sun Ra. So I had something established to draw from. They helped me figure out a lot of things. If you’re asking whether I ever had a “negative” influence like that, or heard someone play something on the piano that I just will never be able to do - well, that happens almost every day. Life is humbling, like that.

RB: Well you certainly do an enormous amount with what you can do!

VI: I just get used to failure! Once you try it, it’s really not that bad. But thank you for that.

RB: My pleasure. Thank you so much for taking the time to do this!

VI: My pleasureI