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A Larger Trajectory: Vijay Iyer

Blog
A Larger Trajectory: Vijay Iyer

07.08.2018

Text: Leyla Aksu
Illustrator: Saydan Akşit

Presenting one of the most diverse and expansive contemporary catalogs throughout his career thus far, Grammy-nominated jazz pianist, composer, bandleader, producer, writer, and educator Vijay Iyer has become one of the most exciting and active names in jazz. Releasing a steady stream of albums and compositional projects, his output has been consistently evolving in sound, genre, instrumentation, and theme, with Iyer almost cultivating an expectation of continuous musical invention and collaboration. With the release of his highly acclaimed album Far From Over just last year, the artist, who previously met with Istanbul’s music lovers as part of the 21st Akbank Jazz Festival, is now among the most talked about jazz musicians of 2018.

Born in 1971 to parents who emigrated from India, Vijay Iyer began playing music at a young age, starting with the violin and slowly gravitating towards jazz after joining his high school ensemble. Eventually choosing to pursue music and piano, leaving a background in physics behind, Iyer’s career has since spanned over 20 albums, countless collaborations and bands, a teaching position at Harvard University, and a string of accolades, including a MacArthur Fellowship.

Listing the “rhythmic and melodic ideas from Carnatic music and from Indian folk music” as influences in his work, Iyer is known for infusing his pieces, both composed and improvised, with musical elements from a variety of styles. While these have ranged from Indian classical music to hip hop and electronic music, Iyer has also been outspoken in regards to expanding the traditional focus on Western jazz canon. Referring to his work as “creative music,” Iyer has said of himself, “I have never thought of myself as a great pianist. I thought of putting myself in the service of some larger trajectory. For me, every choice is to take us closer to the next choice.”

In recent years, Iyer has held residencies at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, Wigmore Hall in London, and the Molde Jazz Festival in Norway, performing his compositions at these institutions. In addition to his jazz trio projects, his field of production displays a wide variety of form, spanning spoken word pieces, full orchestra commissions, string quartets, and film scores. Also crossing paths with a wide selection of artists across disciplines and genres, Iyer has collaborated with musicians like Butch Morris, Steve Coleman, Wadada Leo Smith, Rudresh Mahanthappa, Dead Prez, and Himanshu Suri, while rubbing elbows with filmmakers such as Haile Gerima, Bill Morrison, and Prashant Bhargava.

Featuring Stephan Crump on bass and Marcus Gilmore on drums, the long-running Vijay Iyer Trio received a Grammy nomination for Best Instrumental Jazz Album with 2009’s Historicity, which was also named the best jazz release of the year by numerous outlets. The trio’s most recent album, 2015’s Break Stuff, then earned the group a five-star rating from DownBeat magazine.

Iyer first came together with one of his more frequent collaborators, hip hop artist and spoken word poet Mike Ladd, on the album In What Language (2003). The two continued to work together, producing politically weighted musical narratives on Still Life with Commentator (2007) and 2013’s Holding It Down: The Veterans’ Dream Project.

Characterizing jazz as an open and shifting means of self-expression, while emphasizing the genre’s history of “defiance, unity, joy, and transcendence,” Iyer remarks, “When I talk to my students about it, I kind of frame it as a history of community organizing. Because it was about people coming together in pretty dire circumstances, and—sort of against all odds—creating beauty and changing the world.”

Most recently, Iyer headed into the studio with his sextet, featuring Graham Haynes on cornet, Steve Lehman on alto saxophone, Mark Shim on tenor saxophonist, Stephan Crump on bass, and Tyshawn Sorey on drums, coming out with last year’s Far From Over. Describing his direction with the band as wanting to “work with different dance rhythms and dance impulses,” Iyer’s structures continue to expand the boundaries of genre.

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