Pianist Vijay Iyer, known for moving between jazz, classical, Indian and electronic music, will perform 12 different sets of music in a residency at The Stone in New York City between Jan. 20 and 25.
His shows on Jan. 23 and 24 will feature expanded versions of his longtime trio, which features bassist Stephan Crump and drummer Marcus Gilmore (the trio will be performing throughout the U.S., France and Italy in February, March and April).
Break Stuff, Iyer’s first trio album for ECM and fifth with Crump and Gilmore, will be released Feb. 10. The album draws inspiration from the jazz of Andrew Hill and Duke Ellington’s Money Jungle trio, James Brown’s rhythm section, Jimi Hendrix’s Band of Gypsys, ’70s soul music and recent electronic music and hip-hop.
“A lot of the rhythms people like J Dilla and Flying Lotus have are a little bit awkward in a way that makes you move differently,” Iyer said during the Los Angeles stop of his recent tour, featuring a program of his India-inspired work Radhe Radhe and chamber orchestra piece Mutations. “That’s a discovery that has emerged in black music in the last 15 or 20 years. We’re approaching that same aesthetic but from a different direction.”
Iyer, 43, discussed the impact of Thelonious Monk and hip-hop on his life, his teaching at Harvard and his trio’s approach to Michael Jackson’s “Human Nature.”
Prior to signing with ECM, you have been recording for multiple labels, moving between jazz, contemporary classical and multi-genre works. You come to ECM and within 12 months you have a film score (Radhe Radhe), a chamber music piece (Mutations) and come Feb. 10, a new album with your jazz trio (Break Stuff). How deliberate has it been to showcase the extent of your talents?
I’m just honored to have the opportunity to have this work documented. There’s already been a breadth of stuff in my discography, but one thing I found was they all couldn’t live in the same place. Working with ECM has been nice because everything makes sense in the same space — one thing isn’t competing with another. I’ve been writing chamber music for 15 years but none of it was documented prior to Mutations. To have that in the same breath as a new trio album is wonderful because it means I’m not at odds with myself. I’ve felt in the past that I couldn’t treat all of my offspring equally; the projects couldn’t be seen in the same light.
On Break Stuff you continue to use the same musicians you have been using for years. Historicity brought you a lot of exposure. Any sense now about what made that album so special?
The first album we recorded together was 10 years ago, Reimagining on Savoy Jazz — Marcus was 18. When we made Historicity (recorded in November 2008 and March 2009), it was assembled quite hastily. We had just done our first standalone trio tour in Europe, but we had been playing stuff from our past. The label (Act Music + Vision) wanted to start with a trio album so we had to figure out how to quickly make a trio album. There was something very casual about it. The combination of being dead serious and kind of loose is what brings about the best music in this area. It’s about what happens and not what you want to happen.
Which both fans and critics responded to.
Far beyond what any of us expected. The level of accolades was unforeseen and unprecedented for me. That became the flagship vehicle.
What had you learned when the trio went to make Accelerando three years later?
There was a lot of water under the bridge. We’d had a lot of dialogues with audiences making music around the world and that second trio album bears some of that knowledge. There’s a certain emphasis on power and virtuosity that gets rewarded in the live context. I also learned that it’s nice to take people some place that isn’t about that and, in the course of our sets, insert something that works against that idea.
Does it work against an audience’s expectations?
It’s not against them, but it pushes them a bit. I started to enjoy a kind of a mystery — that you could balance something very direct with something quite mysterious. There’s a bit more of that on this album, a bit more mystery, a bit more subtlety and letting things evolve very slowly. We take our time.
You chose three relatively unknown pieces to cover here: Thelonious Monk’s “Work,” John Coltrane’s “Countdown” and Billy Strayhorn’s “Blood Count.” What made those songs work in the context of Break Stuff?
I’ve been trying to play (the three songs) for a long time and I felt we might as well document it. I think about Thelonious Monk every day. He’s my biggest influence by far — I’ve studied his music for a quarter century and that’s one of his pieces you don’t hear much. What I like about it is the roll of the hand. You can hear these hands falling on the keys in a weird way that you hear the body interfacing with the instrument. That’s what I like about his music in general, especially on pieces like this where it brings that to the forefront.
“Countdown” is largely a drum and sax song.
It’s a hard piece. I’ve been thinking about it for a long time, working on it for a long time. There’s this certain kind of rhythmic structure that I’ve worked on with these guys that dates back to the album we made in ’08, Tragicomic. There’s a piece on it called “Machine Days” that has a certain rhythmic foundation that sounds a little helter skelter, but is really organized. We started shoehorning a lot of other music into that rhythmic structure, like Andrew Hill’s piece “Smokestack.” It sounds like its in 4/4, but there’s something extra to make it a little wobbly.
One of your better-known covers is of Michael Jackson’s “Human Nature” that starts sweet and then falls apart and recovers after a good long ride. Is this similar?
Our version of “Human Nature,” there’s something wrong in it — it’s wrong in a way that feels good. We try to have fun with it every time, deal with asymmetrically. As a listener in the midst of music, I find myself being engaged in a way that pushes me to want to make sense of it all. It feels good, but partly because it feels wrong.
What do you like about hip-hop? Are there elements of your work with DJs that can translate to the jazz space?
Some hip-hop and contemporary electronic music has that swagger and complexity in the way the rhythm feels, which I enjoy. I’ve been working with hip-hop musicians for 20 years — MCs, DJs, poets, dancers — and I’ve been listening to it for 30 years so it’s a big part of my life. It’s not like I feel a need to be all hip-hop, but that sensibility about how your put sounds together, reaching for the gut with the rhythms, that’s important to me. Also, as a way of engaging with technology, there’s something about it that extends into what we consider to be human. Robert Hood, the artist we pay tribute to Break Stuff, said something about squeezing blood from a drum machine, which is a really interesting. The fact that you could deal with something inherently robotic and somehow find something that speaks to us and makes us want to dance — that’s fascinating. A core reality of hip-hop is engagement with machines — taking a beat and looping it to infinity. It extends beyond what’s possible for a human being but it speaks to us in a human way.
What about on the orchestral side?
There are several pieces on Break Stuff that are extractions from a suite written for a violin ensemble. They all have to do with birds. I wrote it for 18 musicians, so playing it with a trio was like skeletal abstractions of the pieces. I like how relatively spacious it is.
You started at Harvard in January 2014. They do not have a music program, so what are you teaching there?
There are a lot of exceptional musicians who participate in a joint program with the New England Conservatory of Music, so it’s outsourced. It peels off the best musicians, which is not productive for the Harvard community. I’ve been trying to attract some of those students and just get them thinking a bit more broadly about what it means to be an artist. It means collaborating and creating something more than just the pure athleticism of performing. That’s one side. This semester I had a graduate seminar called ‘Theorizing Improvisation.’ Students read thousands of pages thinking about improvisation but not just in the context of music. (Improvisation) is bound up in concepts of freedom, which is part of the history of this country, so it becomes a much larger question.
That sounds like it goes pretty deep.
The last class (was held) in the wake of the non-indictment in Ferguson. Improvisations of the powerful at the expense of the powerless — it becomes a larger question.
At one point in time, jazz musicians processed events of the day into music — Nina Simone, Max Roach, John Coltrane, the list goes on. Is that relevant or even necessary today?
It’s an ongoing question, but you have to look at who is making the music. It used to be that this music was made by and for and within the community that produced the musicians, African-American communities throughout the country. The way they would become indoctrinated or called into the music was through apprenticing. Fact is, for the most part, people learn this music by going to a music school, which is embedded in a system of privilege — which is in some ways the opposite of the music’s birth. It’s not a problem, but when you look at the concerns of the people making the music, what is their investment in these stories or these power struggles? There’s an overall lack of engagement in American culture with these burning questions.
You pose a lot of questions that go far beyond jazz via social media on your Facebook and Twitter accounts. Why do you put yourself out there in that way?
If someone is going to follow me because they like jazz, then they better be ready to deal with some social justice issues. You can’t just have black music without black people. What it boils down to is, if you don’t care about black people, the urgent concerns of the moment facing those communities, it doesn’t make sense to be fetishizing black music. That’s what it boils down to for me.