Published Feb 23, 2011Pianist Vijay Iyer calls himself "jazz famous." He's one of the genre's most prominent performers but not Bieber famous by any stretch. Iyer slid into professional music around 15 years ago. Unlike most jazz players these days, he's largely self-taught on his instrument. Iyer's improvisational fluency has resulted in many boundary busting musical experiments, which nevertheless resonate deeply with jazz audiences. His audacious cover of MIA's "Galang" from 2009's Historicity is slamming soul jazz for contemporary times, and resulted in an explosion of bookings and a Grammy nomination this year. Being one of the first prominent Indian-Americans musicians has been a useful hook for journalists, but has also turned into tiresome Q and A for him over the years. It's clear that questions about identity and music are bound up in less obvious ways, especially given his friendship with rap pranksters Das Racist. We caught up with him on the phone from scenic Kalamazo, just before he was due to fly to Los Angeles in time for the Grammys.
Has Historicity taken you to a new level in your career?
Yeah somehow, it did really well critically and it did reach a different level of acclaim than I'd had before. Just the sheer amount of it, including the Grammy committee.
That's got to be a little surreal.
Yeah. It's certainly far beyond what I ever expected.
Are you going to be in one of those all star bands like you and Herbie Hancock and five pianos on stage?
One of those? Are there many such bands?
Well at the Grammys there are.
I'm just hoping I get there on time. I'm going there for the afternoon where they give out the jazz awards; the not-ready-for-prime-time awards. Then right afterwards I have to go right back to the airport and fly to Belgium.
So Tirtha is your new album but it's not a new project, can you describe both?
This is a trio with myself on piano, Prasanaa, the guitarist and Nitin Mitta is the tabla player. We first started playing together in the summer of '07. I had the opportunity to pull together a group that was a little more oriented toward Indian music or dealing with more elements of Indian traditional sounds. I wanted to do it in a way that was very contemporary but wasn't a mix of styles or something like that, it was more about dealing with individuals who I already had relationships with whom I was compatible in terms of just making music together. It's not like "here's me from over here, and them from over there and let's meet in the middle" or something like that, [it was] "let's all be ourselves and build something from scratch."
Both of those guys are hybrid individuals who come from cities in India, have lived in the U.S. for over a decade and have collaborated with a lot of Western Indians already. Prasanaa grew up in Chennai, which is a pretty cosmopolitan place. He grew up listening to American rock'n'roll and emulating Hendrix. He got into Carnatic [South Indian classical] music on the guitar; that made him basically the first person to do that. He was already an innovator by taking that on; he's a pioneer on the instrument. We both took on compositional duties for the ensemble, we were both writing from our own individual perspectives for each other based on what we both know. It's improvisational music too: part of the intent when you compose something like this is to empower everybody to express themselves, so you're setting something in motion. To me, the best part of the group is when we start to improvise. I'm not trying to play Indian music; I'm just trying to create something with these guys.
Labelling it as Indian music or as American music, none of these categories are really sufficient. The notion of category or style or genre is not that useful here; it's about information and interactivity. I've never really been interested in categories, what those labels really are communities and histories, not as stylistic rules but histories of communities of people and ideas, and who advanced those ideas. Then there's also a community of people who are invested in that history. That makes them fuzzy categories, because the community doesn't have any boundaries to it, especially since this is music about cities so it's really about how open it is rather than how closed it is.
Going back to Historicity, did you have a feeling that when you recorded the MIA cover that this could really reach people in a different way?
No I didn't at all. I mean, I'd done covers before and it's part of the idiom, there's a transformational element in it. I'm inspired by Coltrane doing "My Favorite Things" and Monk and Miles. That's just part of the history of the music. But we kind of had to make the album I don't want to say in a hurry but we had a time frame that to me I didn't feel we had enough time to develop a whole new book of pieces for the trio. So what I figured with Historicity was we could bring that sensibility with pre-existing material that we could open up a dialogue with the originals. There was a certain amount of curatorial work: if I were to cover some music what would it be? So I chose music that inspired me. MIA was on that list and to be honest I wasn't sure if it would work. We rehearsed the day before we went in the studio. I transcribed all the different rhythm tracks that she used to build that piece. She made it on an MPC so it's all programmed. It's not just a funky backbeat thing; there are all sorts of different rhythms in there on specific or virtual instruments that we wanted to evoke to capture the specific groove. It was partly an experiment to orchestrate for an acoustic ensemble in a way that evokes the track. But I didn't know it was going to get 70,000 hits on YouTube, which admittedly isn't that much. People get that many hits in a day, and we got it in a year. It's what we call jazz famous.
You obviously don't see pop as a barrier; it's just another way to express your ideas. I guess the zenith of that would have been your collaboration with Das Racist ("Free Jazzmatazz").
That was fun. It was very brief. I'm in touch with those guys and we're friends but the musical encounter was brief, like two hours. That track was basically created in real time. I showed up at (the studio) ― I figured, well this is hip hop, they told me two so I got there up at 2:30. Of course they weren't there, they showed up at about 3:15, but the engineer was there and I started messing around with these vintage synthesizers, getting wild sounds. Then when they showed up, we kicked around some jokes and just started messing around. Victor [Vazquez] sat down at the drum pads, and I was at the keyboards, and the guy hit record, and then we had this track! Then I said "I think it needs bass" and we did another pass with (synth) bass. Then did another pass with other sounds, and we made a few other tracks so there's more in the vaults. But I didn't know what was going to happen with it so I said let me know if you want me to come by again. A couple of weeks later they sent me the track with the lyrics! I couldn't believe it.
Those guys are well known for their irreverence. Given what we were talking about with Tirtha and Indian influences and hybrids and so on and so forth, if (one) got that conversation started with them, they'd probably throw it right back and say something smart-assed and sarcastic.
In a way, they're dealing with the same dynamics. Actually Heems [Himanshu Suri] told me that he's taken a cue from me in terms of how I end up answering the same kind of questions they get asked. Which to me was quite an honour, I don't know if honour is the word, but it makes me feel good. As like one of the first prominent Indian-American musicians I'm able to inspire and influence people who are in the same boat a few years later. We have to navigate the same kind of pitfalls like "what did your parents say when you went into music instead of science or medicine or engineering?" You know what? Shut up. I've already answered that question literally hundreds of times.
Have you ever given that as an answer: "Shut up"? Can you get away with saying that?
I try to answer in a way that's new or authentic. But honestly my own stumbling into a musical life that was a difficult decision for me. It wasn't like I'm going to do this to defy my parents, fuck what they think. It was more like "is this really possible? What's going to happen to me?" I've already invested all this time in a certain direction [Iyer graduated with a BA in mathematics and physics from Yale and was pursuing a PhD at University of California Berkeley before concentrating on music] and now I'm abandoning that, so it's like a quarter of my life has already been wasted. So that was a trauma for me, and it took a long time to get over it. It's an uphill climb ― it is for anybody in the arts ― but there was an extra dimension for me of kind of veiled intolerance. It's not like anybody has tried to kill me or anything like that but I really had to fight for a place in the music world. It took me a while to get a foothold, and that's not something I wish on anybody. It's a struggle and so much of it is dumb luck.
And a little bit of talent I'd say.
And work, you have to work your ass off to get anything accomplished. And even then you may have a foothold for a while, but none of it is permanent. How do you think long term about a life in the arts, what are the strategies for sustainability? That's a big question.