Vijay Iyer is not your garden variety jazz pianist and composer. For one thing, he’s got an interdisciplinary Ph D in cognitive science and music. For another, he collaborates with hip-hop and conceptual artists on multi-media works like “Still Life With Commentator,” an existential critique of the 24/7 news media that was given its world premiere two weeks ago at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.
But Iyer, 35, is best known for the organic way he draws on his South Indian heritage in his music. Iyer - whose full name is pronounced VID-jay EYE-yur - has forged a cutting-edge aesthetic rooted in jazz but saturated with dense Indian and funk rhythms, incantatory improvisations and churning group interaction. Nothing in jazz sounds quite like Iyer’s long-running quartet.
Iyer’s originality, emblematic of a flood of globalism coursing through contemporary jazz, has made him one of the most talked about young pianists in jazz. Iyer swept both the rising star pianist and composer categories in the 2006 critics poll run by Down Beat, the bible of jazz magazines.
“One of the things both Vijay and I have worked on is integrating elements of Indian classical music on a conceptual level,” says alto saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa, who has worked regularly with Iyer for a decade. “It’s a synthesis of ideas. It ends up transcending not only superficial notions of Indo-jazz fusion, but it also transcends what is the average jazz sound.”
Jazz, whose very foundation was cast from the cross-pollination of African, European and American idioms, has always embraced the music of other cultures. But in recent years, the free trade of ideas has picked up speed, intensity and breadth, with musicians grafting jazz onto folk forms derived from cultures as diverse as those found in, say, the Balkans, rural Puerto Rico or a small village in Ghana.
The Indian influence in Iyer’s music is most apparent in the zigzag rhythms, the way intricately layered patterns lie across the beat. Often the music breaks down into odd meters like seven or 14 beats per bar. Iyer and his bassist and drummer might play roiling figures that at first sound at odds with each other and Mahanthappa’s razor-sharp angularities. Even musicians might have trouble keeping count of the beat.
But at its best, the heady mathematical concepts morph into such strong elliptical grooves that listeners find their heads bobbing involuntarily.
“Hearing these rhythms sounded through people’s bodies and instruments gives the music a handmade quality that’s compelling,” says Iyer, speaking from his Manhattan home. “It has structure and rigor, but it also feels like folk art.”
There is also a surprise around every corner, a value as fundamental to Iyer’s music as scripture, but one that he says is also at risk in an age in which people can download weeks of music from anywhere in the world to an everpresent iPod.
“It’s liberating but also a bit deadening,” he says. “Do we realize that people put their sweat, tears and blood into this music? Can we hear that anymore? I worry about that, because I’m someone who has staked my whole life on the act of live music.”
The son of immigrant professionals, Iyer was born in Rochester, N.Y. He studied the violin from age 3 to 18, teaching himself the piano on the side. The bravura arpeggios he favors can echo his early immersion in classical music as well as free jazz icon Cecil Taylor.
He began listening to jazz in high school, deepening the bond at Yale, where he majored in physics and math but also played bebop gigs in town. A turning point was a post-war jazz history course in which the professor imported leading avant-garde jazz musicians from New York to perform.
One who left a key mark on Iyer was pianist Geri Allen, whose craggy style grew out of Thelonious Monk’s percussive touch and startling approach to rhythmic displacement. Monk founded a school of pianist-composers, and Iyer joins a line of descendants including Herbie Nichols, Randy Weston and Andrew Hill.
Iyer began a doctoral program in physics at the University of California at Berkeley but music became his focus. He toured with the charismatic saxophonist Steve Coleman, whose opaque melange of jazz, funk, detailed composition and mysticism have made him a guru among younger musicians. Iyer also created his own Ph D program, writing a dissertation about the role of the body in the way people experience music.
“I argued that the experience of perceiving and creating music is an embodied experience, which I think everybody can relate to because every culture in the world has music and dance and they’re always connected,” says Iyer.
It was also in California that Iyer met Mahanthappa, his closest collaborator. They play in each other’s bands and have recorded about 10 albums together. Both began exploring Indian music as a way of reconnecting with the past.
“I think of Vijay as being a cousin or my third brother,” says Mahanthappa. “We have something unique and very intuitive, and when we play we don’t have to talk about much.”
Still, it’s reductive to see Iyer and Mahanthappa only through the prism of their shared heritage. Both have been equally informed by the experience of growing up brown in America as opposed to specifically Indian, and various strains of African-American music, from Prince to hip-hop to John Coltrane, are wired into their DNA.
“All of this stuff is part of who we are as Americans,” says Iyer.