Interviews
9:16 am
Fri September 27, 2013

Vijay Iyer: Self-Taught Jazz Pianist Goes 'Solo'

This interview was originally broadcast on Oct. 14, 2010.

Jazz musician Vijay Iyer started playing the violin when he was 3, but when he was 4 or 5, he wanted to play another instrument: the piano.

"The piano was around because my sister was taking lessons, and so I just started messing on it and figuring things out little by little," Iyer tells Terry Gross. "I can't really pinpoint the beginning of it."

Mainly self-taught, the New York-based jazz composer and pianist now performs worldwide with his trio, quartet and quintet, among other groups. His album Historicity topped the 2009 Village Voice Jazz Critics' Poll, and was one of the most critically acclaimed jazz albums of 2009. His album Solo features original compositions, as well as covers of classic tunes by Duke Ellington and Michael Jackson.

Over the past decade, Iyer has established himself as one of the freshest, most compelling jazz leaders in the field, often collaborating with saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa to combine elements of South Indian classical music with traditional Western jazz. Though he has degrees in both math and physics, Iyer says the mathematical components of his compositions come more from the music of South India than from anything he learned in the classroom.

"I'm very influenced by the music of my heritage, and I've spent a good deal of time studying on my own terms and coming to terms with carnatic music — the South Indian classical music. Particularly, I'm interested in rhythmic concepts from South Indian music," he says. "And so I work with a lot of these elements in my music. And the structures of that tradition are very mathematical, but it's in a way that is an aesthetic. It's not just about calculation for its own sake. It's something that pervades the visual art and the culture of South India."

Iyer's work has been commissioned by the Chicago Jazz Festival and the American Composers Orchestra. This year, he was voted Pianist of the Year for the second time in a row by the Jazz Journalists Association. He has received grants from the Rockefeller Foundation, the Jazz Institute of Chicago and the New York State Council on the Arts, and was recently named a 2013 MacArthur Foundation "genius." His trio received the 2010 Echo Award for best international ensemble and the 2010 Downbeat Critics Poll for best small ensemble.

His latest album, Holding It Down: The Veterans' Dreams Project, is a collaboration with poet Mike Ladd drawn from the experiences of American veterans of color from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.


Interview Highlights

On His Masters In Physics From The University Of California At Berkeley

"I was very much groomed for the sciences, as were many people from my community. I'm the son of immigrants from India. My father was a scientist. He came here in the mid-'60s along with a whole new wave of immigrants from India who had a kind of technical training. They were sort of selected for that. There was a change in immigration law in the 1960s that opened the doors to people like my parents. So I grew up with my parents and a lot of their friends being scientists and engineers and doctors. And in a way, that's just what I fell into, and it seemed like a stable thing to do. It seemed like a wise and prudent thing to do."

On Covering Duke Ellington's 'Black And Tan'

"['Black and Tan'] has been kind of haunting me for about 20 years, at least. I think I first found it in a piano book that belonged to my sister that was sort of an anthology of blues boogie-woogie and stride piano. My sister was the one who had formal piano lessons, so I used to raid her piano bench for whatever I could find there. I found Duke Ellington's original notation for 'Black and Tan' in a solo piano arrangement back then, I suppose. I must have been in high school."

On Playing Both Violin And Piano

"I took violin lessons until I was 18, so it wasn't like I ever said, 'Violin is not my true love or is my true love.' It's just something that I stuck with, until... I think my sophomore year of college was the last year of violin lessons. And the only reason I stopped was because I couldn't keep it up to the level that I wanted to and continue with my studies in physics at the same time. So because I had this early training by ear, it meant that I could actually transfer that skill in some limited way to another instrument."

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Transcript

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. On today's show we feature interviews with two pianists just awarded MacArthur Fellowships, the so-called genius award: classical pianist and writer Jeremy Denk and jazz pianist and composer Vijay Iyer, who we hear from first.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

Iyer was cited by the MacArthur Foundation for creating a unique voice while reaffirming the place of music not just as entertainment but as an essential part of human society. As the son of immigrants from India, pianist Vijay Iyer didn't see a place for himself in jazz early on, but he found one. He was voted Pianist of the Year for the second time in a row this year by the Jazz Journalists Association.

DAVIES: His 2009 his album "Historicity" topped many critics' best of the year lists, including Ben Ratliff of The New York Times. His latest album, "Holding it Down: The Veterans Dreams Project," is a collaboration with poet Mike Ladd, drawn from the experiences of American veterans of color in Iraq and Afghanistan. Terry talked with Iyer in 2010, when his album "Solo" was released.

It includes re-workings of a Michael Jackson song, a tribute to Sun Ra, music inspired by physics - he has a master's degree in physics - and this version of Duke Ellington's "Black and Tan Fantasy."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BLACK AND TAN FANTASY")

GROSS: That's Vijay Iyer from his album called "Solo." Vijay, welcome to FRESH AIR. Why did you want to cover this Ellington piece?

VIJAY IYER: Well, you know that song has been kind of haunting me for about 20 years, at least. I think I first found it in a piano book that belonged to my sister that was sort of an anthology of blues, boogie-woogie and stride piano. You know, my sister was the one who actually had formal piano lessons and so I used to kind of raid her piano bench for whatever I could find there.

GROSS: "Black and Tan Fantasy" always sounds like a funeral march to me and I really like the marchiness that you get from it.

(LAUGHTER)

IYER: Well, you know, I really went into the Harlem stride tradition, and I'm very influenced by Monk in that regard. He is somebody who pushed the envelope with that language, you know, in terms really straddling this divide between on the one hand keeping this very buoyant pulse and on the other hand being very expressive and free and somehow embodying all of that in one person.

And, you know, the stride tradition where you're really doing one thing with your left hand and the other thing with your right and they're very independent, you know.

GROSS: You're such a good pianist, it kind of amazes me that you didn't set out to be a professional musician. And correct me if I have any of this wrong, you got your undergraduate degree in math and physics at Yale, then you went to the University of California at Berkeley and got your master's in physics?

IYER: That's correct.

GROSS: And your Ph.D. in...

IYER: It was called technology in the arts.

GROSS: So what were you expecting to do with those degrees?

IYER: During my undergraduate years, I was really interested in literature and in philosophy and in psychology and history. But I was also very much groomed for the sciences, as were many - I'd say many people from my community.

You know, I am the son of immigrants from India. My father was a scientist. So that was in a way just what I fell into, and also it seemed like a stable thing to do. It seemed like a wise and prudent thing to do. And you know with immigrant cultures, stability is really the first priority, and you can't blame them for that.

GROSS: I'm wondering if what you learned in math and physics applies at all to your music. And I'm thinking, I guess, specifically of a piece of yours that I'm about to play called "Patterns," which is - it's pattern music. It's not really about melody. It's about, you know, repeating and slightly shifting patterns.

IYER: Hmm.

GROSS: And that - it seems like there are or may be connections to math in that.

IYER: Well, you know, I'd say the connection to mathematics is through musical traditions. You know, I'm very influenced by the music of my heritage. You know, as I said, my parents are from India, and I've spent a good deal of time studying on my own terms and sort of coming to terms with especially Carnatic music, the South Indian classical music. You know and, particularly, I'm interested in rhythmic concepts from South Indian music, and so, I work with a lot of these elements in my music.

And you know, that, the structures of that tradition are very mathematical, but it's in a way that is - it's an aesthetic, you know? It's not just about calculation for its own sake or something. It's actually something that pervades not just the music but the visual art and the culture of South India.

GROSS: Well, let's hear "Patterns," and then we'll talk more about the Indian traditional music that has influenced you. And this is Vijay Iyer from his new album "Solo." It's his composition called "Patterns."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PATTERNS")

GROSS: That's an excerpt of the Vijay Iyer's composition "Patterns" from his new album "Solo." How did you first hear jazz because, you know, growing up in the '80s or - '80s?

IYER: Yeah, '70s and '80s.

GROSS: Seventies and '80s, yeah, I mean jazz was no longer like a popular music that was all over the radio unless you sought it out. You weren't going to likely hear it on jukeboxes or, you know, so how did you hear it?

IYER: That's true. You know, it was hard to come by and it's even harder still to come by nowadays than it was then. There were instances of it on TV. I remember Charles Kuralt used to have Billy Taylor kind of...

GROSS: Right.

IYER: ...post a segment on "Sunday Morning."

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

IYER: And I remember seeing the Modern Jazz Quartet on there. And I also remember seeing Dizzy Gillespie on "Sesame Street" when I was really little. I remember seeing John Blake, the violinist, on "Mr. Rogers" when I was a kid.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Well, and that made an impression on you? That made you think wow, this is interesting?

IYER: I think, you know, it was, and especially because I remember seeing John Blake playing violin and I was playing violin and so I remember thinking wow, you can do that on violin too? And, of course, the whole soundtrack to a lot of those shows like you know, Toots Thielemans played the theme to "Sesame Street" and, you know, Roger Callaway was the pianist on "Mr. Rogers." So like there were gigs for pretty serious jazz artists on TV.

(LAUGHTER)

IYER: But then also, I have to say that when I was in junior high and high school, that was around the time of Herbie Hancock's "Rockit." Okay.

(LAUGHTER)

IYER: So that's hit, you know, when I was probably in eighth grade or something and, you know, that was like the kind of bizarre intervention from a jazz musician into popular culture that that had implications, you know, so that was my first exposure to Herbie Hancock.

DAVIES: We're listening to Terry's interview recorded in 2010 with Vijay Iyer. He was just awarded a MacArthur Fellowship. We'll hear more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're listening to Terry's 2010 interview with jazz pianist and composer Vijay Iyer. He was recently awarded a MacArthur Fellowship, the so-called genius award.

GROSS: So if your parents were part of the first sizable wave of people from India to emigrate to the United States, that makes you part of the first sizable group of Indian-Americans born here. So, as somebody who is Indian-American in a relatively small community, did you pick up that people were thinking well, like, who are you to be playing this music? Like, what's your connection to it?

IYER: Well, you know, I think it's a process that reveals more and more about the listener. And, you know, we're in a very strange period, particularly in terms of how we deal with what it means to be American. And in a way, it's sort of like we're hitting this identity crisis or something. And I say we because I feel 100 percent American.

I was born and raised here. I grew up completely immersed in American culture, you know: the music, the junk food, the movies and so on. I mean I grew up with "Star Wars" and, you know, Michael Jackson and by Thelonious Monk and Duke Ellington and by Andrew Hill and by my heritage as an Indian-American and by a lot of things.

GROSS: Your previous album, "Historicity," did so well critically. It was album of the year in Village Voice Critics' Poll, in the Jazz Times Critics' Poll. New Times music critic Ben Ratliff named it his album of the year. And I want play something from that album and I'm going to play the - your version of the Leonard Bernstein song "Somewhere," with the lyric that we won't hear by Stephen Sondheim.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: And this is, of course, from "West Side Story." And you - this is like this love song sung between Tony and Maria and they're...

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: ...like Romeo and Juliet types who aren't supposed to be together but they want to be together, and they're singing that like somewhere there's a place for us, and you just - your version just kind of erupts in the middle and in these like pounding descending phrases that are - they're great. But I mean they're almost violent.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: I mean it's just so not in keeping with this like romantic, oh someday we'll find that place for us. So talk little bit about like reinterpreting this song.

IYER: Well, you know, I kind of was interested in almost intervening on that song and creating a sort of alternate reading of it that presents some reality that's different from its original context, which, of course, is really part of the jazz tradition, I mean the towering example being Coltrane playing "My Favorite Things" or...

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

IYER: ...you know, or Monk playing "I Should Care" or Ahmad Jamal playing "But Not For Me" or all these, you know, where the sort of classic approaches to a pre-existing song where you somehow transform it into something that's more about you and less about the song...

(LAUGHTER)

IYER: ...while still somehow retaining elements of the song. So that was basically my approach.

GROSS: So here's Vijay Iyer from his album "Historicity," which was released last year. And this is Bernstein's "Somewhere."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SOMEWHERE")

GROSS: That's an excerpt of Vijay Iyer's reinterpretation of "Somewhere" from "West Side Story." That's really great. I love those percussive descending lines that you do on that.

IYER: Thank you.

GROSS: Now your first instrument was violin. You started taking violin lessons when you were six, is it?

IYER: Three actually.

GROSS: Three? Yikes.

(LAUGHTER)

IYER: Yes.

GROSS: That's really Suzuki method, isn't it?

IYER: That what is was, indeed.

GROSS: Oh was it really?

(LAUGHTER)

IYER: Yeah. And so I mean the benefit of that was that my ear was trained first and from very early.

GROSS: Is that the method where they train your ear before they give you the instrument?

IYER: Well, before they give you notation they train you by ear, you know.

GROSS: I see.

IYER: So you kind of learn more by imitating the teacher. And...

GROSS: You have these little toy violins or something if you're three?

IYER: Oh yeah, you have a - I think I started on a 1/16th size or something. You know my daughter is going through the same exact thing right now, which has been interesting. And so I'm kind of reliving a lot of those things.

(LAUGHTER)

IYER: So it's hilarious and charming.

GROSS: What did you get her, a violin too?

IYER: Oh yeah. She's - it was her choice, in fact, so there must be something about it that appeals to little ones. So...

GROSS: So what point did you realize that violin wasn't your love and your true love was piano?

IYER: Well, you know, they kind of proceeded - they happened at the same time. I took violin lessons until I was 18. And so it wasn't like I ever said oh, you know, violin is not my true love or is my true love.

(LAUGHTER)

IYER: It was actually just something that I stuck with for quite a while until I was into college - in my sophomore year, I think, was the last year of my violin lessons. And the only reason I stopped was because I couldn't keep it up to the level that I wanted to and continue with my studies in physics at the same time.

So, but piano - so the way it worked was because I had this early training by ear, it meant that I could actually kind of transfer that skill in some, you know, limited way to another instrument. And piano was around because my sister was taking lessons, and so I just started messing around on it and exploring and figuring things out little by little.

GROSS: Well, I've chosen the music that we have heard so far and sometimes to prove what a generous person I am, at the end of an interview I'll let the performer choose a record.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: So, is there a track you'd like to end with?

IYER: Hmm, well, you know, I had fun making the last track on the album, which is...

GROSS: That's the one dedicated to Sun Ra.

IYER: That's right. It's basically a blues that's in his honor. You know, a lot of people think about Sun Ra as this theatrical and very...

GROSS: Kind of crazy? Yeah.

(LAUGHTER)

IYER: ...elusive, kind of playful, I'd say, imaginative space cadet, literally...

(LAUGHTER)

IYER: ...in the sense, you know, because all this stuff - he kind of conjured his own mythology about being from Saturn and so forth, and I love that side of him. But, at the same time, I feel like sometimes people forget that he could play some piano.

And some of the most influential albums for me are the solo piano albums that he made. There's one called "Monorails and Satellites" and there are a couple from the '70s that were on Paul Bley's label. And, you know, I think it's amazing.

And in a way I think it's so mysterious and so profound that people haven't really dealt with it yet. He was so far ahead of his time that we are still catching up. So this is kind of my homage to Sun Ra, the pianist.

GROSS: And it's called "One For Blount" because his birth name is Sunny Blount.

IYER: Yes.

GROSS: Well, Vijay Iyer, thank you so much. A pleasure to talk with you.

IYER: Thank you. It's been an honor to be on the show.

GROSS: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF PIANO MUSIC)

GROSS: Pianist and composer Vijay Iyer's spoke with Terry Gross in 2010. Iyer was recently granted a MacArthur Fellowship, the so-called genius award. His latest album in collaboration with poet Mike Ladd is "Holding it Down: The Veterans Dreams Project." I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF PIANO MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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