It might be a stretch to imagine pop icon Stevie Wonder, British electro rapper MIA and genius American jazz saxophonist, the late Julius Hemphill, in the same room.
Still, their music is glued inseparably in jazz pianist Vijay Iyer’s jazz-trio album, Historicity, that won the 2009 “jazz album of the year” crown from the well-regarded National Public Radio network and The New York Times and Los Angeles Times dailies in the US. “It took a while for people to come to terms with the fact that this was an Indian-American entering the jazz tradition and bringing his own influences,” says 38-year-old Iyer, son of Tamil immigrants in the US, in a phone interview from New York City. “Now, most of the jazz community is at peace with the reality of who I am.”
Artful trio: (from left) Gilmore, Crump and Iyer. Lynne Harty Photography
Iyer still has to often explain to people the right way to pronounce his latest brew (his-tri-city, not his-tori-city). The notes in his album, inspired from six decades of pop, jazz, rap and hip hop, require no elaboration.
Iyer, drummer Marcus Gilmore (grandson of jazz legend Roy Haynes) and bassist Stephan Crump—an emerging luminary on the New York city jazz scene—whip up a delicate, yet intense blend with Broadway musical West Side Story’s love ballad (Somewhere), covers of free-jazz maestros, pianist Andrew Hill (Smokestack), Hemphill (Dogon A.D.) and the politically charged numbers by Wonder (Big Brother) and MIA (Galang).
Still, Historicity remains accessible to even a novice jazz enthusiast. “I think part of why people were able to respond to this album, particularly in the United States, is that it has points of reference that lots of different people could plug into,” says Iyer, who studied physics at Yale University and is a self-taught pianist. “It wasn’t that I set out to do that. I just wanted to represent myself as fully as possible.”
The album’s quality signals the chemistry enjoyed by the three musicians. Gilmore’s versatile beats spike up Iyer’s deft keystrokes and Crump’s effortless strumming sometimes quite literally takes on a voice, as evident in Iyer’s crisp original Segment for Sentiment.
“Stephan and I’ve been together for more than 10 years and Marcus joined the group in 2003. So by the time we made this, we had a lot of years together,” says Iyer. “Marcus comes from an esteemed jazz lineage and that component keeps our group grounded in the real history of the music.”
Historicity’s walkover after its October release surprised Iyer, who recorded his first album in 1995. But the Rochester-born pianist is not complaining as his 13th album has “opened the doors” for him, with performances scheduled around the world over the next year and half.
As of now, there are no performances scheduled for the trio in India, but Iyer is looking forward to visiting the subcontinent soon. After jamming largely with people such as poet-performer Mike Ladd and fellow Indian-American saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa, Iyer is likely to release his first solo piano album in September.
“It was a leap into the unknown for me as there was no precedence of Indian-American jazz artistes in the United States and so I am pleased about the positive responses this album has received,” says Iyer, who loves to perform live, but hates being away from his research scientist wife and five-year-old daughter during the long jaunts. “Family keeps you grounded so that you don’t get any kind of extreme ego from worldly success because when you come home, your daughter is still wearing her hands over her ears when you talk to her,” he says with a laugh.