“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.
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.
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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