​​What the World Needs Now by Shaun Brady

Conversations with Vijay Iyer about his music inevitably come around to the subject of rhythm — or, more to the point, the subject of movement. The last time I sat down with Iyer, at his home in Harlem in 2011, the pianist/composer had dance on his mind. That was the underlying theme of his then-current trio album, Accelerando, which explored the idea of “dance music” as refracted through his own rhythmically daring original compositions along with repertoire from Duke Ellington, Flying Lotus, Michael Jackson, Herbie Nichols and Henry Threadgill.

“The reason that I’ve made a point of connecting with rhythmic ideas from Indian music and African drumming is because that’s what makes music go,” Iyer said at the time. “In these different rhythmic traditions around the world, you see different approaches to that same basic science, or craft, or ritual of eliciting movement from bodies.”

Not that Iyer thinks audiences will confuse his music with the latest club banger. But for all the talk of complexity and challenge that greets each of his releases, there is an urgency and momentum that undergirds all of his music and that attuned listeners will feel deep in their gut. He increasingly strikes a masterful balance between head and heart, with music that invites and rewards penetrating study while simultaneously stirring deep and somewhat elusive emotional reactions.

Vijay Iyer

That’s never been more true than on Iyer’s latest, the stunning sextet date Far From Over (ECM). The album sweeps across a rich stylistic and textural spectrum, from the serrated higher-order funk of “Into Action” to the haunting, mysteriously elegiac “For Amiri Baraka.” From the taut push-pull swells of the title tune to the disquieting howl of the final track, “Threnody,” an unnerving agitation lies at the album’s core, like the far-off rumble of an approaching storm that’s more sensed than heard.

The song titles offer a clue to the source of this unease and to the way in which Iyer contemplated the idea of “movement” on Far From Over. “Into Action,” “Wake,” “Down to the Wire” and even the more pointed “Nope” are all titles that suggest both resistance and persistence, a call to awareness and action that is especially vital to the composer in the current socio-political climate.

“​Most of my pieces have a skeletal quality, so there’s an understanding that what’s on the page is not the music, exactly. It’s more a set of parameters and stimuli to bring music forth. That’s the creative music tradition.”

“Some orientation towards social justice is the subject of most of these pieces,” Iyer says, sitting at his kitchen table in the waning days of summer. “I know that instrumental music can only mean so much in that way, but it’s more about what it does at the level of feeling and of the body, of emotion and sensation. You can see it as action being a precondition for activism. Maybe that’s an abstract way to put it, but to me if this music activates the imagination, it moves you to act. That’s what music does in general: It moves you to move. Or you could just say it moves you. And movement is what we need right now.”

If Far From Over is the work of an innovative composer taking the pulse of leading-edge jazz and steering it in vital and surprising new directions, it’s all the more remarkable that the same description could apply to all five of his bandmates. In their own ways, trumpeter Graham Haynes, saxophonists Mark Shim and Steve Lehman, bassist Stephan Crump and drummer Tyshawn Sorey are all fiercely original composers with distinctive and divergent visions for their music.

“I depend on that,” Iyer says. “Everybody involved is a composer, and what that means is that there’s a sensibility for how to shape music. It isn’t just about showing up as a player and waiting around for your solo to start. It means that everyone has a perspective on how to make the music sound a certain way, how to shape the experience, how to merge with other people, how to create counterpoint and how to think about energy. It’s not just about having a tight band; it’s about expanding the music from what’s on the page in a way that reveals a careful listening, an interdependence and a long view of things.”

“The music itself lends itself to the possibilities of us exploring our particular vocabularies and having it work within the overall framework of each composition,” says Sorey, who has been working with Iyer for more than 15 years. “Each piece has a different language to it; there’s something unique about each composition in terms of how everybody plays together, in terms of the conceptual framework behind it, in terms of the forms of the music. So the record is totally fresh, in my opinion.”

In part, Iyer came upon the “band of composers” idea through his work with trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith, one of several members of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, whom Iyer credits as mentors. Iyer joined Smith’s Golden Quartet in 2005, leading to an ongoing collaboration that was most recently manifested on the superb 2016 duo outing A Cosmic Rhythm With Each Stroke.

“There’s a heightened sense of surveillance, fear and subdued rage that surrounds you. It puts a frame around every human interaction, and because it’s all being inflamed right now by these evil people at the highest levels of power, it feels like we’re back to a moment where some mass movement is necessary.”

“I just want to recapture the feeling of those Jimmy
Rowles/Billie Holiday or Ben Webster/Teddy Wilson
records, the Oscar Peterson Trio, Ella and Louis —
those tempos. I still have youth in me that just wants to
swing and hit hard, but I’m not afraid to be relaxed.”

“People who are generally just journeymen sidemen, who just play with other people and don’t really have composers’ skills, their field is limited,” Smith explains. “I may describe it like this: Their field is like Earth, whereas a composer and performer, their field is like Jupiter. There are vast distances. But more importantly, people who are composers think about the musical process before it happens, when it happens and after it happens. Real knowledge is not just knowing the answer, but actually finding out whether that answer itself is useful and helpful.”

Iyer’s sextet also represents a web of longstanding relationships, which helps to meld such singular voices into a cohesive but unique whole. The pianist’s acclaimed trio is represented in the sextet by the presence of Crump and Sorey, who has often stepped into regular trio drummer Marcus Gilmore’s role; at the same time, Sorey and Lehman make up the best-known version of Iyer’s collective trio Fieldwork. Both Sorey and Shim are members of Lehman’s octet, while Crump and Lehman have recorded together as a duo. Haynes and Shim were among the first musicians Iyer encountered upon moving to New York in 1999, and the connections and linkages continue from there.

“There’s a lot of deep levels of trust and mutual awareness,” Iyer says. “You could call them listening relationships, which definitely serve the music at every moment. They’re all good decision-makers, and they’re tracking everything at a very high level, so they can just implement an idea. Most of my pieces have a skeletal quality, so there’s an understanding that what’s on the page is not the music, exactly. It’s more a set of parameters and stimuli to bring music forth. That’s the creative music tradition.”

Iyer learned that tradition at the side of many of its most inventive and forward-thinking practitioners. Born in 1971 and raised in upstate New York, he was drawn to the piano by his fascination with Thelonious Monk, early imbibing the iconic pianist’s blend of memorable but spiky melodies, angular grooves and percussive attack. He didn’t set out to pursue music full-time, however, instead earning a degree in mathematics and physics at Yale before pursuing his doctorate in physics at the University of California at Berkeley.

Vijay Iyer Performing
Vijay Iyer Performing with Tayborn

It was during that time, playing music as a sideline, that Iyer hooked up with saxophonist Steve Coleman, who proved instrumental in redirecting his passions. “Working with Steve gave me a huge kick in the pants,” Iyer recalls. “It’s basically one of the reasons I’m a musician. Before that it was more avocational; I didn’t see a way to make it my life until Steve created that way.”

As Iyer’s relationship with Coleman ripened, he was also being mentored at Berkeley by George Lewis, the brilliant trombonist, educator, author and electronic music pioneer. Lewis was Iyer’s thesis advisor and proved equally influential. “George Lewis was rigorous with language and with ideas. He was fearless with electronics and proved that it could become a conceptual framework and a way of thinking about the foundations of music, or about empathy or about the self. Steve and George arriving in my life around the same time opened up a lot of different pathways and new opportunities.”

In 1994 Iyer decisively shifted his focus from physics to music, completing a dissertation on music cognition at the same time that he was embarking on an active touring and recording schedule, serving further apprenticeships with Roscoe Mitchell and Greg Tate’s eclectic Afrofuturist big band Burnt Sugar. He made his leader debut in 1995 with Memorophilia, the same year that he connected with saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa. The two would form a crucial partnership over the ensuing years, working in each other’s groups and forming a long-lasting duo project while each explored the influence of their shared South Asian heritage in different ways.

Vijay Iyer

That shared mission, Iyer explained in 2011, “was a source of strength and inspiration. At the same time, the reason we connected was that he liked Coltrane and I liked Monk, and when we played together there was an element of that in there.”

Over the ensuing two decades Iyer would ascend to the first tier of modern jazz artists, evolving his own captivating sound while rising to meet diverse new challenges. He’s penned compositions for new music ensembles — including the International Contemporary Ensemble, Imani Winds, So Percussion and Brooklyn Rider — and recorded an album-length suite for electronics and string ensemble called Mutations as his ECM debut in 2014. He’s currently a professor at Harvard and directs the Benff Centre’s International Workshop in Jazz and Creative Music. In addition to his renowned trio, he also leads the trio Tirtha with Indian guitarist Prasanna and tabla player Nitin Mitta, and embarked on a series of recordings and performances with poet and hip-hop artist Mike Ladd that explicitly engaged with contemporary issues.

The subjects of those collaborations with Ladd — from the new realities of negotiating airports as a person of color to the dreams and nightmares of veterans of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — offer examples of how Iyer’s work and life have changed in the aftermath of September 11, 2001. The tensions that have become so much more pronounced since the 2016 presidential election have only accelerated those changes. “Just last month I was in the Montreal airport and I barely brushed this white woman’s elbow, and she turned around and shrieked in horror like I had assaulted her,” Iyer says. “As a relatively privileged child of immigrants from South Asia, I’d say things are certainly different since Trump in the way that they’re also different since September 11, which is that you can’t take anything for granted — if you ever could. There’s a heightened sense of surveillance, fear and subdued rage that surrounds you. It puts a frame around every human interaction, and because it’s all being inflamed right now by these evil people at the highest levels of power, it feels like we’re back to a moment where some mass movement is necessary.”

While the color of his skin has led to inevitable encounters with racism and harassment, especially in recent years, Iyer is quick to view his own issues in a wider perspective of history and personal responsibility. “In the last quarter century, most of my collaborations and apprenticeships have been with people of color and especially African-Americans. This music is born from that community and of that struggle. So if I’m going to show up and mess around with that language and that history and that legacy, I need to also honor the struggle and care about the people who got me here. Given that black people have legitimate reason to fear for their lives walking around on the street, and black people made this music, what’s my relationship to that history? That’s the real question.”

The social commentary aspect of Far From Over thus connects Iyer’s work with a long tradition of activist jazz, from Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” to Nina Simone’s “Mississippi Goddamn,” through Coltrane’s “Alabama” and Sonny Rollins’ “Freedom Suite” to Gil Scott-Heron’s “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” and beyond.

“It’s been a through-line through the entire century of history we’re talking about, which is a tradition of resistance. That’s the real tradition: mobilizing in the face of what seemed like insurmountable obstacles or oppression. It’s about overcoming the societal circumstances and doing something world-changing and important. This isn’t about whose side you’re on. It’s a simple question of compassion and care about the future.”

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