It was inevitable. The children of the Indian diaspora that immigrated to the US in the sixties and seventies have started to excel in many facets of American life, carving a niche for themselves in many fields of endeavor, from science and technology to entrepreneurship and governance, from literature to music. From mathematician Kannan Soundararajan to author Jhumpa Lahiri, from Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal to diplomat Richard Rahul Verma, they are now splashing colors on America’s rich tapestry.
Perhaps the best example of their integration and contribution is evident in the world of music, where Indian-born performers are making waves in the arena of jazz, which America truly claims as its own. Of the performers who have made it to the A-list, pianist-composer Vijay Iyer perhaps shines the brightest. A critics’ favorite and Grammy award nominee, Iyer has been fulsomely praised as an extravagantly gifted pianist and composer who is bringing a new sensibility in intricate improvisations, which is much in evidence in the albums he has released in the past few years.
Although he has been releasing albums since the mid 1990s, debuting with Memorophilia (1995), where Indian improvisational sensitivities are intelligently melded with the idiom of jazz, Iyer received widespread acclaim with Historicity (2009), which secured a 2010 Grammy nomination and was named the jazz CD of the year by the Downbeat magazine and the New York Times. Working with drummer Marcus Gilmore and bassist Stephen Crump who comprise his touring trio, Historicity is perhaps the best starting point for listeners new to Iyer’s distinctive sound and virtuoso skill.
The album starts with a stunning title track that immediately underlines the unique style of Iyer, who, despite his musical reference points of titans such as Thelonious Monk, Andrew Hill, McCoy Tyner and Alice Coltrane, sounds like no other jazz pianist, past or present. He acknowledges his love for Hill with the master’s Smoke Stack, reprised with élan that retains the swinging groove of the original composition. Historicity is replete with oblique touch points of Motown, pop fusion and alternative rock that come together in a brilliant package with Gilmore, Crump and Iyer managing to produce music that sounds much fuller that usually heard in a mainstream jazz trio. The altogether enjoyable album also features some outstanding tracks such as Big Brother by Stevie Wonder, Dogon AD by Julius Hemphill and Iyer’s Trident: 2010.
It’s practically impossible to keep up the pace after making a masterpiece, but the rapidly maturing Iyer manages to do just that in Solo (2010), which features both covers and original compositions. Meditative and flamboyant in turns, Solo showcases Iyer’s technical mastery in his first effort to play unaccompanied. He does a commendable job in Epistrophy, a number made famous by Monk and performed by countless others. The five originals are bookended by the standards and a composition by Steve Coleman, a one-time mentor. Iyer also shows his chops in One for Blount, a tribute to Sun Ra, and Fleurette Africaine, a popular composition by Duke Ellington.
Born to Indian immigrants in New York State in 1971, Iyer grew up into a polymath, graduating with mathematics and physics. He did his masters in physics and an interdisciplinary PhD from the University of California at Berkeley, gaining attention with his research on music cognition. Now teaching music at the Harvard University, Iyer won the MacArthur Foundation’s genius grant in 2013.
Refusing to be typecast in any particular slot, the largely self-taught Iyer’s output has been surprisingly diverse, form fusion music with Indian undertones to straight ahead jazz trios to political statements in partnership with Mike Ladd, one of the leading artists on the underground rap scene, which include albums such as Still Life with Commentator (2007) and more recently, Holding it Down: The Veterans’ Dream Project (2013).
With back-to-back releases in the past few years, one better than the other, Iyer seems to be on a creative roll. This year too has seen him releasing a couple of albums that have been much talked about, garnering praise from critics and listeners alike. In Mutations (2014), his first release on the ECM label that was made famous by the likes of Paul Bley and Keith Jarrett, Iyer has again surprised fans by making music that is unlike anything he has done earlier. His first recording after getting the genius grant, Mutations is Iyer at his most provocative, completely shorn of his Carnatic roots or, for that matter, his explorations in post-bop and modal musings.
The offering opens with the quirkily titled Spellbound and Sacrosanct, Cowrie Shells and the Shimmering Sea, a composition that first appeared in his debut Memorophilia, but completely reworked with subtler harmonies. The albums title is a 10-part suite for piano, string quartet and electronics that has shades of Western classical canon in that they are driven as much as by compositional directives as by collective improvisations. That this too in time will be called a masterpiece still remains to be seen.
The other release, Wiring (2014), is a collaboration between jazz super group Trio 3 comprising alto saxophonist Oliver Lake, bassist Reggie Workman and drummer Andre Cyrille who have for long been on the cutting edge of innovative jazz. The heavy hitting Trio 3 had on earlier occasions collaborated with pianist such as Geri Allen and Jason Moran and the much younger Iyer seems to be a natural choice in their latest release. For aficionados of free jazz, Wiring offers a roller-coaster ride filled with all the attendant thrills. Iyer plays as if he is an intrinsic member of the band rather than just sitting in for a performance, which says a lot about the blending skills of the pianist even among those familiar with Trio 3’s other offerings.
But then, despite his distinctive style of playing, Iyer is also known for his partnerships with a diverse set of musicians that range from the fiery alto player Steve Coleman to Rudresh Mahanthappa. He has cut several albums with Mahanthappa, the other child of the Indian diaspora who has earned a name for himself through his particularly melodic playing of the saxophone, which contrasts sharply with the intellectual rigor of Iyer. It’ll, of course, require another article to celebrate that particular musical friendship.
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Jazzmatazz is a fortnightly column on stories from the world of jazz. For the music that it features, visit here.