Talking about his music: Vijay Iyer

Jan 21, 2009 at 12:00 am

"I'm interested in what happens when the traditions collide, I love to be at that juncture," pianist Vijay Iyer said the other day, in a conversation that ranged from his doctoral research to a new tune that draws on the work of the hip-hop group A Tribe Called Quest.

Actually, a lot of traditions collide in his music, but right then he was talking about the Carnatic music of South India and jazz. And on his acclaimed disc Tragicomic, he points to his interpretation of Bud Powell's "Coming Up" from the 1950s as an example.

I've been a big fan of Bud Powell for many years and he's been a big influence on me. I find myself consulting his playing when I need to figure something out about my own problems. How did he play this fast and still sound relaxed? How does he navigate these strange rhythmic figures like he played with Max Roach on "Poco Loco." Bud Powell dealt with it with such ease and grace that it's incredible.

I was asked to play on a Bud Powell tribute festival maybe a year and a half ago and "Coming Up" was one tune that I always liked of his. It's unlike many of his tunes – he's known as a bebop player, he could play the shit out of changes, fast harmonic progressions, like famously his take on "Just One of Those Things" is a classic from that era. And then he'd also had these ambitions as a composer which would come out in a piece like "Glass Enclosure" his pseudo-baroque pieces. You could see that he was trying to do something that actually reaches outside of the box to the extent that there was a box at that time for jazz. And then there's "Coming Up" from the '50s which is actually his it has that traditional structure, but then for the solo section he plays over this vamp, like this rhythmic ostinato that just recurs over and over again and he just sort of soars and just has fun with it. This is the Bud Powell that no one ever talks about ...

Bud Powell at Antibes

Iyer discussed his version of John Lennon's "Imagine" at greater length later, but it related to what he did with his version of "Coming Up" in reworking the theme into an ostinato:

I was trying to kind of reduce the amount of motion in both of those songs — harmonically speaking — and create static kinds of repetitive figures out of them that would then just really be about rhythm. With "Coming Up" I took a few notes from the melody and cycled that and that's sort of how the track begins, just sort of like cycling those first few notes to create this rhythmic loop that then sets up the larger textures.

The way that it's set rhythmically, it's sort of like each large beat is divided into seven small beats, so then the way that we manipulate those seven small beats is inspired by the way the percussionist does that same thing. So there're like two levels of rhythmic order referring to that system of rhythmic manipulation and permutation and displacement and stuff like that ... that are more Indian in nature.

And then what I found in the course of doing this particular tune would be the elements that emerge that are reminiscent of dub [laugh] which is sort of like an accident. I didn't even mean for this kind of resonance to occur, but there it is. This is now an elemental part of this arrangement. It wasn't written down on a piece of paper or anything. Then we started exploring that connection too, and this being New York, those kinds of elements tend to crash into each other anyway. Like you walk down the streets of Brooklyn and all those elements might emerge from what's coming out of bodegas, from the taxi and apartment windows that are open with stereos on, you might hear all those elements crashing into each other anyway.

We first performed it at the Bud Powell tribute in, I think, December of '07, and then we recorded a couple days later. Then it s evolved even further and the You Tube clip from this past summer where we played it in Brazil may be a more interesting version because the spontaneity of it. I think I'm pushing it a little bit harder in terms of trying to ... wherever there's a structure that I'm improvising with I like to try to crack it open, whatever that means.

"Comin' Up" (Trio live in Brazil, 7/08)

Iyer's version of "Imagine" (from his 2005 Reimagining on Savoy) has a similar sort of looped feeling for its melody.

It's funny with that piece, there's actually not much improvisation happening in my arrangement. It's really just kind of compositional reduction of the elements of that song into something really hypnotic. That's a song that everybody in the world knows. I wanted to see how little of the song I could play literally and still retain enough of the elements so it was clear that it was the song.


On his 2003 release Blood Sutra (Artists House), Iyer takes an already dark tune popularized by Jimi Hendrix and others in the 1960s and delivers a "Hey Joe" that's darker still, now retitled "Because of Guns/Hey Joe Redux."

That album was created in the aftermath of 9/11 here in New York. I don't want to belabor that, but the whole album was called Blood Sutra because all the pieces somehow have to do with blood, and "Hey Joe," is this murder ballad. Hendrix played what was already like this '60s folk anthem; his version of it turned it into something much more terrifying because there's almost this shamanistic, mystic quality in the way he plays and the way he treats that song is like kind of reveling in the mayhem. I wanted to sort of revisit that particularly because this was a project that was trying to cover the theme of violence ... it's very literal and obvious.

It's sort of a song that everybody knows, again, and what people haven't really thought about this as a song about guns and killing and death and violence and this classic American narrative of gun violence. Why is that so American?

I retitled our version because around the time I was watching this show, maybe it was on CNN or something, about the guns in America, about the right to bear arms and stuff like that. And this woman was actually saying that she was like an NRA enthusiast and she was saying [adding a bit of drawl for emphasis], "America is what it is because of guns," [laughs] on soap box that guns made us great or something like, that guns made us who we are. I wanted to turn that back on itself.

Iyer's latest recording as a leader, Tragicomic (Sunnyside), takes its title from activist-theologian-philosopher Cornel West.

There was a suite that I created a few years ago with the same name, "Tragicomic," and four pieces on the album from that suite: One is called "Aftermath," and there's another one called "Without Lions" and there is one called "Machine Days" and "Threnody." Those four are tied in with that theme most overtly. "Tragicomic" is a word that Cornel West used to describe the blues esthetic, which, of course, is part of the underpinning of American music in general whether we acknowledge that or not. And I kind of wanted the reality to resonate alongside all the music in this album. I think there is a kind of narrative quality that emerges on a piece like "Threnody" which is a song of mourning, and it starts out very lyrical and kind of mournful, but it then gradually acquires this intensity and weight and size and it just sort of keeps getting larger and larger until it seems like it can't possibly get any larger and then we just fade out. I was interested in that visiting of extremes, which was sort of what Cornel West was talking about with this encounter with the absurd. That's sort of what his vibe on the tragicomic sensibility — which in American history starts with absurd levels of cruelty and inhumanity. That's something we all need to learn from.

Vijay Iyer: Aftermath ...

Iyer has more reconstructed standards in mind for his Jan. 23 Detroit appearance. The trio plans to play "Mystic Brew," a Ronnie Foster pop-jazz hit that was later sampled by A Tribe Called Quest. Iyer's version, he explained, references the Tribe's version — sort of real-life sampling. They're also performing "Somewhere" from West Side Story.

Especially with the trio repertoire, I'm trying to create these interesting situations where we're dialoguing with history. What I love is that when you hear Coltrane play "My Favorite Things," that's not about The Sound of Music — his version is about something radically other than what the song itself is. The song becomes substrate for the growth of these other ideas, something much more interesting and personal. It's not that these tunes are put on a pedestal as great tunes, it's more that they're turned into something that they never were. So when I do a cover, it's not because I want to fetishize the song. It's because I want to tell another story.

Vijay Iyer and his longtime trio (Stephan Crump on bass and Marcus Gilmore on drums) perform Friday, Jan. 23, 7 and 8:30 p.m., in the Rivera Court of the Detroit Institute of Arts, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit, 313-833-7900.

W. Kim Heron is Metro Times editor. Send comments to [email protected]