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“The history of ‘creative music’ is kind of like the history of storming places,” Vijay Iyer told me five years ago. Then, he was seated at a piano in a gallery of the Met Breuer, a five-story hulk of a building that was being inaugurated as the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s new outpost for modern and contemporary art in Manhattan. There, through a series of thrilling and varied performances, Iyer upended notions of how modern music might fit within a visual arts space while also upholding traditions he’s absorbed from elder masters of, among other things, jazz. Iyer, 49, has been a powerful and uncompromising presence, storming all sorts of venerable institutions — among others, the Village Vanguard, where he has extended and disrupted modern-jazz’s ongoing story, and Harvard University, where he directs a graduate program in Creative Practice and Critical Inquiry that one participant described to me as, “intended to create a space for things that didn’t exist before and to rethink what did exist before.”Iyer is a singular thinker about music. He is also a master collaborator,with deep compassion and openness toward the desires of other musicians. The contexts for his own music have ranged widely. His close communion in duo with trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith led to the riveting 2016 release A Cosmic Rhythm With Each Stroke. His work with poet and rapper Mike Ladd yielded a trilogy of politically charged multimedia pieces. For his 2014 album Mutations, he paired piano and electronics with a string quartet. Yet the clearest and most popular distillation of his aesthetic to date has been his trio with bassist Stephan Crump and drummer Marcus Gilmore. His latest recording, UnEasy (ECM), marks his studio return to the trio format for the first time since 2015, now with drummer Tyshawn Sorey and bassist Linda May Han Oh. Here, Iyer draws upon deep associations. He and Sorey began playing together roughly 20 years ago; they co-direct the annual workshop in Jazz and Creative Music at Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity, in Alberta, Canada, where Oh has served on the faculty. On the new release, these three make music that is in some moments meditative and at others startling for its interlaced streams of rhythm and harmony. The album was recorded in December 2019, before the pandemic, yet it seems in some ways to address the pent-up disorientation of a locked-down world as well as the tides of social unrest that have characterized that same period. These songs suggest tension and grief and yet also furtive hope — “a sense of ongoingness,” as Iyer puts it, “of endless possibility.”During a phone conversation from his home in Harlem, Iyer talked about the role of trios in his own development, the bonds of understanding he shares with his trio partners, and the experiences that led to this new music.
[caption id="attachment_38791" align="alignleft" width="2560"] Tyshawn Sorey, Vijay Iyer and Linda May Han Oh (Photo: Courtesy the artists)[/caption]
Some have written about the trio format in near mystical terms — powers of three, pyramids and all that. You’ve clearly thrived within trios. Why is that format so appealing?Well, it’s not two, and it’s not one. Two seems somehow more about contrast, about opposition. With three musicians, there are three possible pairs, right? If the components are strong enough, there are relationships among the relationships, there is both complexity and balance. Your latest album marks your first return to that format in the studio since 2015, with a new group. What prompted that decision?Well, I should start by stating that, to the extent that any band still exists right now, my trio with Stefan [Crump] and Marcus [Strickland] still very much exists. And what the records with them represented was a working group that toured a lot and played probably thousands of shows. That continues. This new release is something else. How did that trio, with Stefan and Marcus, develop?In my earliest years as a music-maker out in public, I had a working trio that was a space for me to try out a lot of approaches. It’s not that I invented these things. I was drawing from a lot of different existing models — from Ahmad Jamal, from the album Money Jungle, from Andrew Hill and Bud Powell and Herbie Hancock and Geri Allen, from Randy Weston and Cecil Taylor. And other things: the styles of great African-American drummers — studying their language, trying to transcribe some of that; hearing hip-hop as it existed in the 1990s and funk and soul; as well as different Indian rhythmic cycles and rhythmic techniques I was interested in. On my first couple of albums, Memorophilia and Architextures, there was a lot of trio music included that’s very specific and very intricate.
When I came to New York, I formed a quartet with [saxophonist] Rudresh [Mahanthappa] and Stephan — it was Derrek Phillips on drums, and then Tyshawn [Sorey]. Also [Your Life Flashes by] Fieldwork came out in 2002, which was also this kind of exploratory three-member space, only the members [saxophonist Aaron Stewart and drummer Humberto Kavee] and the instrumentation were different. In the summer of 2003, I started working with Stefan and Marcus, when Tyshawn started doing more as a leader. But on all of the quartet albums, there was always some trio music. And with Marcus in it, it was a lot more trio music because I could really feel his presence. How did that connection affect your ideas about trios?When we first started playing together, we’d go see [Marcus’] grandfather [drummer Roy Haynes] play together and he’d sit on the floor, cross-legged, looking like a little kid. I was kind of in awe of Roy. And I would soak in what Roy played, and soak in Marcus soaking that in. It was just amazing to witness. I remember talking to Marcus a lot about that lineage, about his grandfather and these albums that I loved that his grandfather was on — with [pianist] Andrew Hill, who was my one of my idols and someone I got to know quite well. And so that was a point of context. I felt like there was a lot there that we could explore. I really cherish what we were able to build together. It was about sound in a very specific way. That concept seemed to develop or distill through 2015’s Break Stuff. Yes, though I think of it as those five records — the two quartet albums and the three trio albums. That’s the arc.
In your new trio, you also draw on long collaborative histories. You and Tyshawn have been working together for something like 20 years.Something like that. By now, Tyshawn and I have this almost familial bond. We’re in each other’s lives in very important ways. It’s more than being in a working band. It’s more like just being in life together. This is the fifth album I’ve done with him, but then there are hundreds or thousands of other things we’ve done that are not on albums. Whenever we come back together and play, it’s less like a band situation and more like, Here’s what life has brought us to now. It has that sense of endless possibility. There are no habits. Of course, Linda and I have also played together a ton over the last decade. She was in this working project that I’ve done for several years with [writer and photographer] Teju Cole called “Blind Spots,” where he was reading and showing images. Linda has been up to Banff many different times, and there we’ve played together with all kinds of people. None of that is on any record, either. And a lot of that was with Tyshawn, actually.
[caption id="attachment_38794" align="alignleft" width="768"] Linda May Han Oh[/caption]
So how does this trio on this album differ with your past approaches to the format?This album feels to me like some of the albums in the ’50s and ’60s that are blowing sessions — Let’s see what we can do with this, let’s try that. That includes Money Jungle, and it also includes Inner Urge, Joe Henderson’s album that inspired my version of “Night and Day.” The people on Inner Urge had played together a lot, so they have a vibe together. And a larger sense of community was being addressed — we have to all come together and make a record. There’s a familiarity and a newness at the same time.This new album was recorded in December 2019. Yet its mood and its title, UnEasy, seem to address all that we endured in the year that followed. How do you account for that?Part of what spun it in that direction was that we assembled the album during the pandemic. It was a matter of looking in retrospect at what we had created through this new lens of enclosure and anxiety, of frustration and stir-craziness, and of grief. And then also, what kind of future could we now imagine, and how does this music speak to that? Also, it was a summer of incredible uprising, which was its own sort of gesture of hope and intention and speculative energy — as if saying, Our future can be better than our present, should be better, must be better. The music became bound up with that moment.The title piece, “UnEasy,” is a decade old. Did you feel the same way then?Yeah, because that unease was already there. That was during the Obama years. There was a façade of prosperity, and there were new opportunities: The Affordable Care Act, gays in the military, gay marriage. A lot of landmark stuff happened, yet there was also a lot of doubt. At the same time, there was drone warfare. There was surveillance capitalism, detentions and deportations. In many ways, it wasn’t a rosy moment. So that’s what “uneasy” was referring to then — plus the emerging right-wing nonsense that had been going on for decades, but was taking root in a new way, becoming omnipresent.
You originally wrote that piece for a collaboration with Karole Armitage’s dance company in Central Park, in New York.We were commissioned by Summerstage to work together. Neither of us had done anything like that— live music onstage with dancers, outdoors. It was meant to express a certain exuberance, an optimism of spirit, but then there was also this pessimism of the intellect, around what was looming, in this context of growing unease. So that’s why I spelled it with the internal capital E. It’s easy, and it’s not easy. You also have pieces with titles like “Children of Flint,” in reference to Flint, Michigan, and “Combat Breathing,” with its suggestion of Eric Garner’s words, “I can’t breathe.” Has political activism become a necessary element of your musical presentation?There are certain awarenesses that I can’t avoid and must voice, but that’s always been true for me. That’s nothing new. I hesitate to use the word “activism” because, as musicians, as public figures, we can shine a light on certain things. But to me real activism is what people do on the ground, and that sort of labor that is often unacknowledged and sort of tireless and selfless. That’s been something that I admire and try to support, but I think it would be a little inaccurate to call me one of those people. That’s an important distinction. Yet in the case of “Combat Breathing,” that seemed as much political action as artistic expression.
Yes. That piece of music was supporting specific action. It was part of a program at BAM [Brooklyn Academy of Music] that was under my name. So, it was my decision to incorporate this gesture of refusal, this gesture of support. What was the genesis of that gesture?I was doing this run at BAM, which was a major deal. It included a live performance with the film, Radhe Radhe: Rites of Holi [a collaboration with filmmaker Prashant Bhargava focused primarily on the Hindu celebration of Holi, in India]. BAM commissioned me to do a solo piano piece to open the program. As the day drew near, I was feeling uncomfortable. One reason was the way that BAM was advertising the program. I’m glad that they use stills from the film, but they tended to focus on like a certain kind of exoticizing. Like, here’s a dirty Indian boy with blue stuff smeared all over him. It certainly wasn’t a photo of me. The other thing is that this was 2014, which was the year that Michael Brown was killed, the year that Tamir Rice was killed, and a year that Eric Garner was killed. All in a row, you know? So that was when the phrase Black Lives Matter actually took hold. I remember that there were protests happening in the vicinity of BAM. People were having “die-ins” [in which participants simulate being dead bodies, often in obstruction of traffic or business]. I remember feeling like there was a weird way that these die-ins were functioning for privileged people on social media. I wasn’t sure what to do about the solo piece of mine. Part of me just wanted to not do it. Yet it’s kind of like ridiculous for someone privileged enough to have a show a BAM to shut it down as a kind of gesture. Still, I was also finding myself concerned that somehow my performance was being treated as an escape from what was happening on the street — like that image of the dirty Indian boy offered escape to another world. I wanted to confront those audiences at that institution about that notion of escape from the New York that it inhabits, from the world outside its walls. I talked to some different friends of mine. [Author and UCLA professor] Robin Kelley gave me a better understanding of what die-ins were about. It’s not just performance. It’s not just spectacle. If it’s done as intended, it gets in the way of the normal working of society. It’s like people putting their bodies on the gears. So that gave me the license to do this. Also, I talked with a friend of mine, choreographer, Paloma McGregor, who founded a collective called Dancing While Black. She agreed to work with me. It was a loose idea at the time, but it felt like what we needed to do. We wanted to create this sense of stoppage, so that maybe even just for a moment, someone in the audience feels like the show is not going to happen. In the printed program, it just said “Untitled Solo-Piano Composition, Vijay Iyer.” Instead, you see all these people lying onstage and no one at the piano, at first. There is this die-in that’s getting in the way of the show that they came to see. We had the element of surprise on our side. And then, in this choreographed way, the performers, those who “died,” stand up and face the audience. At first, I thought I shouldn’t even be a part of it, but everyone wanted me to play, to give them something to move to. How did that idea affect what you composed and played?Well, that’s the perennial question. How do you make music that serves movement of any kind, and specifically serves a social movement? All I can say is that it was born of that moment in a very crucial way. I wanted simply to give them something to help them stand up, and then give them something that had a sense of continued movement, some sense of ongoingness, of endless possibility, a projection into the future. It was functional in that sense. The other thing was, it wasn’t about me. I was trying to help them make the statement they wanted to make. It was one of the most intense experiences I’ve ever had onstage, honestly. I remember a few of the dancers were in tears afterward because it was so intense, and because of how they faced the audience, what that gesture meant, what it meant to look those people in the eyes in that hall. When you recorded that piece with Tyshawn and Linda, were you trying to recapture that moment of resistance? Did you talk about that?Well, for one thing, as with many moments in my life, Tyshawn was there. He was there in 2014, so I didn’t have to tell him anything. And he has played it many times since then. I felt like that sentiment, that impulse, would speak through the music in some way or it would be made anew for a new moment. And that both of those paths are valid.
[caption id="attachment_38793" align="alignleft" width="720"] Tyshawn Sorey[/caption]
Is there something about this particular trio that enables the consciousness behind a lot of what you are saying with songs like this?I know there’s a certain consciousness and a certain sense of purpose that comes from our collective life experiences, from facing certain things in our lives. I also feel like I can trust them to honor situations. You’ve witnessed each of our trajectories as artists — how we came in, how we were viewed, how people chose to write about us or talk about us, and what we did anyway. You’ve seen what someone like Tyshawn faces as a black musician who is a drummer but also far more, who has composerly aspirations and faces an uphill battle for all kinds of structural reasons. Or Linda, being a non-American woman of Asian heritage playing a bass. How many of those can you name? Or me, being, along with Rudresh, among the first few South Asians in this music, making my own artistic choices on my own terms — what the stakes were, what people misread or what they assumed about me. That’s where an awareness comes from, and that’s why we’re sensitive to others enduring it, too. We’ve talked about a lot of things already, in the context of being faculty in a program at Banff, where issues of race and gender are at the forefront every minute of every day, and connected to music-making in direct ways: in terms of putting together ensembles, noticing the way certain people felt more comfortable than others with the way that privilege works. Why is that such a focus at Banff?
[caption id="attachment_38795" align="alignleft" width="768"] Photo by Ebru Yildiz[/caption]
Because we don’t not care about it. Because Tyshawn and I are co-directors of the program. Because we make it a priority. Because it matters in creating a sense of community. How do you create community if you don’t address those things, if you don’t accommodate difference?We all know where we all stand, and it’s an understanding born in that space where those issues are not off the table. Those issues are part of our thinking continually, but then it’s also just to enable us to come together to make music. It’s not some topic or subject, it’s not some kind of extra overlay of special concerns. The concerns are just already there. It’s where we begin to create.