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Why Vijay Iyer is precious to contemporary jazz

Iyer is acclaimed as a band leader, solo performer and sideman. His latest album, 'Uneasy', is intelligent jazz at its best

Since his debut in 1995, Vijay Iyer has released 24 full-length albums
Since his debut in 1995, Vijay Iyer has released 24 full-length albums

I have to sheepishly admit that my favourite track by the celebrated jazz pianist and composer Vijay Iyer is not one of his own compositions. Instead, it’s his improvised version of a track by the Grateful Dead. In 2016, on Day Of The Dead, a monumental multi-artist, five-and-a-half-hour album that paid tribute to the legendary band, Iyer did a jazz variation of King Solomon’s Marbles, which was originally an instrumental track on the band’s 1975 album, Blues For Allah.

The original was heavy on drums, percussion and bass. In Iyer’s ruminations on the tune, the piano plays the sole role, turning it into a jazz exploration that weaves in and out of the original tune, much in the manner in which the Dead themselves often played their music—with constant improvisations. But Iyer’s track on the somewhat overwhelming Day Of The Dead album (59 songs by various bands and artists) stood out as a jazz rarity and nudged me into paying more attention to his own very impressive catalogue of music.

Iyer is not a jazz star. He’s a jazz superstar. Actually, he’s much more than just that. He holds degrees in mathematics and physics from Berkeley University; and he is a professor at Harvard University who has assembled an interdisciplinary doctoral programme on technology and arts. If that is impressive, his discography as a jazz band leader, solo performer and sideman is even more so. Since his debut in 1995 with the album Memorophilia, a mainly piano solo work, Iyer has released 24 full-length albums and appeared as a sideman on at least 35 more.

In 2010, one of Iyer’s finest albums, Historicity, was nominated for a Grammy award. Historicity also happened to be the first album by Iyer that I had heard in its entirety. Very few jazz musicians of this era can make the highly cerebral kind of music that Iyer composes and plays. On Historicity, there are three self-composed tunes but also his version of those by others, including Galang by M.I.A., which is the stage name of Mathangi “Maya” Arulpragasam, the British activist rapper; Big Brother by Stevie Wonder; and Mystic Brew by Ronnie Foster, the organist and acid-jazz pioneer.

Historicity can be an ideal album to start exploring Iyer’s music but his collaborations (he has played with a galaxy of eminent jazz musicians, Indian classical musicians, and even rappers) and band configurations (he has played as a duo, trio, quartet, sextet…you name it) make for an overwhelming range of music to navigate. But, like Historicity, there are many treasures to discover in his discography. Such as his latest, Uneasy, an album he released in early April.

For Uneasy, Iyer, 49, formed a trio with drummer Tyshawn Sorey and bassist Linda Oh. Although Iyer leads the trio, all three musicians appear to play equally important roles in the ensemble, the drums and bass as essential to the direction of tracks as Iyer’s piano.

Not all the tracks on the album are new. The album’s title track, Uneasy, was written by Iyer 10 years after 9/11, in 2011, and is believed to be motivated by the sense of unease that continued to prevail in New York City a decade after the terrorist attacks.

Yet the track, which opens with Iyer’s piano on a deeply sombre note before turning more hopeful, seems apt for the present circumstances, when a virus-hit world is grappling with an uncertain future. The album’s opening track, Children Of Flint, alludes to the water crisis that hit the town of Flint in Michigan in 2014, when the drinking water there was contaminated with lead. The track opens with a lament but turns into an upbeat and optimistic-sounding melody. Much of Uneasy’s music is like that. Thoughtful, intelligent but also full of hope. Like Iyer, who began playing music at three, his two bandmates are virtuosos in their own right and the combined talent of the trio is terrifically impressive.

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Uneasy urges the listener to play the album multiple times to discover its intricate melodies, harmonies and rhythmic pace. It is intelligent jazz at its best. What stands out is the excellent and instinctive chemistry between the three musicians as they seamlessly weave in and out of each other’s performances. Uncannily, as they play, they blend together, not as three disparate entities but as one. And even if you aren’t as well-versed in the theory of jazz, the album can have an indelible effect on your senses.

Iyer is said to have begun his musical training as an infant on the violin, training in Western classical, before moving on to the piano. His albums, Uneasy included, are deep and rich with layers and textures that can create a soundscape that is easy to get lost in and transported by. In 2008’s Tragicomic, he plays with a quartet, including the alto saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa, recording a lingering soundscape that is anxious and full of apprehension but also strangely calming.

Occasionally in his career, Iyer has created ensembles that are out of the box to make albums that defy familiar conventions of jazz. In 2011, he released Tirtha, where the trio includes, besides him, Prasanna, the Carnatic classical guitarist, and Nitin Mitta, the tabla player. Unlike most East-West fusion— of which there exist many albums by many musicians—Tirtha sees the three musicians from separate backgrounds create a kind of organic music that draws from different traditions. The outcome is an album where East doesn’t merely meet West but the two disparate genres—Indian classical and Western jazz—blend uniquely, proving once again that Iyer is contemporary jazz’s precious treasure.

First Beat is a column on what’s new and groovy in the world of music.


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