By Dan Kimpel
Vijay Iyer: The Harmonious Heritage
Vijay Iyer composes and performs on an instrument virtually unchanged over the past century. “I was looking at a piano I was playing last night,” he says. “It was a Steinway, and the brass has some engraving in it documenting when the different mechanisms were invented, developed and patented -- all in the 1800s. That provides an interesting point of connection, working with the same medium of Chopin, Liszt, and Duke Ellington. It connects you to the heritage of the music just through the mechanism of the instrument.”
His artistry is all about connections and heritage, but music was not an initial ambition for this son of Indian immigrants to the U.S. “I didn’t really know that a musical career was an option for me,” says Iyer who holds a B.S. in Mathematics and Physics from Yale College, and a Masters in Physics and an interdisciplinary Ph.D. in Technology and the Arts from the University of California at Berkeley. “I was doing music all along, but making it my life and my path was a choice that I made when I was 23. I was more of a late bloomer.”
With a combination of intellect, compositional innovation, and a piano style both cerebral and intensely physical, he has bloomed dramatically. The Jazz Journalists Association Jazz Awards named him 2010 Musician of the Year, an honor previously given to Herbie Hancock, Ornette Coleman, Wayne Shorter, and Dave Holland. His 2009 release, Historicity, a classic piano trio suite of originals and imaginative covers, was selected the #1 Jazz Album of the year by the New York Times, Los Angeles Times and the Chicago Tribune, among others.
Composing for visual mediums, Iyer has collaborated with Ethiopian filmmaker Haile Gerima and creates ongoing multi-media projects with poet Mike Ladd. He has remixed tracks for British Asian electronica pioneer Talvin Singh, The Kominas and composer/performer Meredith Monk.
Iyer’s newest release with the self-explanatory title Solo, reveals the paradoxical simplicity and complexity of his technique as he conveys that storytelling is at the center of composition. “Especially for artists of color. We tend to look back to our heritages and pasts as points of reflection, connection and identity formation. That is what we want from music -- not these punishing displays of virtuosity, but to be addressed. Storytelling involves a certain amount of interaction with the listener: You want to be sure they are with you. That makes it a very real time kind of thing.”