We’re going to see Vijay Iyer perform from his new album Tirtha, with Carnatic guitarist Prasanna and tabla player Nitin Mitta, for the Portland Jazz Festival tomorrow, Saturday, and were privileged to get some words with him in anticipation of what promises to be a jaw-dropping show. Vijay is a jazz pianist, composer, bandleader, producer, electronic musician, and writer based in New York City, who’s worked with an enormous array of musicians in many genres, including Mike Ladd, Dead Prez and saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa. We talked about the democr/anarchic personality of jazz, the potency of identity and the magic of collaboration.
How has your background in Indian Classical influenced the work that you do now and how has it it influenced your approach to composition and interpretation of Western Classical jazz?
Well, I should clarify that I’m not trained in Indian music. I was born and raised in the US, and I was trained in Western music; particularly I played classical violin in the Western tradition for many years, and then I had more and more opportunities. I started playing piano by ear when I was little and then I had opportunities to study the history of jazz and I was in a high school jazz ensemble and stuff, so I kind of got into it the way a lot of people get into it in the States nowadays, which is through some sort of educational opportunity. It wasn’t until I was actually an adult, when I was about 20 or so, that I decided I wanted to learn more about the music of my heritage. So I just sort of, among many other things, pointed my attention in that direction, particularly looking at Carnatic music, which is the classical music of South India, and especially looking at the rhythmic techniques that you find in that music. It’s something I’ve been thinking about for a long time, close to 20 years, but I was never immersed in it in the sense of having a guru or studying it formally or anything like that. What I have had are a lot of opportunities to collaborate with Indian musicians. And as a composer I’ve worked with ideas from Indian music and kind of structural concepts from Indian music — especially rhythmic ideas from Indian music, so that’s all kind of led into the work I’ve been doing since the mid-90s. As I’ve had more and more opportunities to collaborate with both musicians from India, and with other Indian-American musicians like me — basically people who are part of the South Asian global diaspora — that relationship has deepened more and more over the years. As I’ve said this is all parallel with a lot of other things I’ve been doing, so it’s been one major priority for me but it hasn’t been the only priority.
Once you were in your twenties and you started to learn about the music of your heritage, did that start to affect your interpretation of or your approach to the jazz you’d been raised on?
Yeah, well, I guess as a composer and band leader, the kind of choices I was making, starting in the mid-90s with my first album which came out in ‘95, it displayed connections between all of those things — you know, a lot of the rhythmic ideas were influenced by Indian music. But then, structurally, it had a lot in common with experimental music from the African American creative avant-garde of the last century, so that includes everyone from Thelonious Monk to John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman and all those, you know, major figures. So I’m influenced by all of that and I’m also influenced by my heritage, but its all been, in a way, a discovery for me, little by little, just finding ways to bring it together.
And do you think that your work gets a specific kind of attention or audience in the jazz world because of your contact with Indian musical themes and other influences outside of — either parellel to or at a crossroads with — Western jazz? I know a lot of people think of “world” themes in themes as a bit psychedelic, like Alice Coltrane. Even playing the Portland Jazz Festival — do you feel like you were approached in a particular way because of your engagement with Indian themes?
I guess I’ve kind of been around long enough that I think people who follow this stuff and people, particularly like the people who run the Jazz Festival, are connected to the mainstream of the jazz industry, so they’ve seen me for many years do lots of different things. Last year I put out an album that probably, more than anything else I’ve ever done, displays that connection with Indian music because I’m collaborating in a trio with two musicians from India. One of them plays tablas, which are the hand drums of North India, and the other plays basically a normal electric guitar but he’s trained in Carnatic music, which is the South Indian classical music, so the way he plays the guitar is more like the veena, which is a South Indian stringed instrument. So I think this particular project — I don’t want to say wears it on its sleeve, but it is a collaboration among three people in the South Asian diaspora, so that is something that’s going to be apparent to people in various ways. It’s not that it’s trying to be jazz or that it’s trying to be Indian music, it’s just that we’re all being ourselves and creating something together. So I suppose, if this is the first or only thing they ever hear of me, that a person might assume that about who and what I am — that I’m the guy that fuses jazz and Indian music or something like that, but that’s a real reductive way of looking at what I’ve done. And if you look at anything else I’ve done, the picture is a little more complicated. It just so happens that that’s the band I’m bringing to Portland because often the kind of timeframe on these things is that you put out an album and someone says, “Hey, nice album, do you wanna have a gig in a year?” then a year later I’m putting out another album with a different band. But then anyway, here we are, doing this concert. This is one event among many that I’ll do in the coming months, and I’m working with a lot of different projects and collaborations and I’m fortunate to have a lot of opportunities like that. I guess from my perspective, I don’t feel pigeonholed because I have a lot of chances to do a lot of different things.
It seems obvious that to pigeonhole you would be to ignore everything you’ve done, which is pretty diverse — you’re also a writer, you hold multiple academic degrees, and your collaborators are diverse as well. I’m curious about the work you’ve done with hip hop performers, like Mike Ladd, Dead Prez and DJ Spooky, and if those collaborations feel in any way different than working with artists who are more in the jazz world.
Honestly, it doesn’t really. I mean, what you want from a collaboration is something that feels very specific and that brings out your respective strengths and also reveals to you some side of yourself that you maybe hadn’t even known about before, or hadn’t addressed in-depth or hadn’t focused on, so this stuff can happen with human relationships or any kind of collaboration in any field. You know, you become somebody specific in that circumstance. Like I’m a different person with my mother than I am with my daughter, to choose a very human example. So I think you bring to the table everything you know and you have certain affinities, and then there are certain possibilities for how to collaborate that reveal themselves in the process.
In the case with Mike Ladd, I mean we’ve been working together for a decade now, and each of the recordings that we’ve put out was the result of a year, or maybe 2 years, of pretty concentrated effort, so it’s not just jazz meets hip hop or something generic like that. It’s really these two individuals, both of whom have a pretty complex and eclectic relationship to modern music. With Mike, to call him a hip hop artist is to kind of miss a lot of what he’s great at, because Busta Rhymes is a hip hop artist who is also great, but to correlate them would be to miss the point, in a way. Mike is a great poet and a great thinker and a great cultural critic and writer and a great performer and a great producer. And he does a lot of different things, and he’s grounded in punk rock as much as he is in hip hop. His whole aesthetic is coming from a very hybrid place, a place of mobility and agency, so I find that working with him I learn a lot, and then I feel that I need to rise to the occasion and try to bring everything I know to the table too. So we can speak in terms of genres and styles and things, but I think really it’s deeper than that, so that’s the case with that particular project.
With Tirtha, the band we are bringing to Portland on the 25th, the thing that is important to me about this project is that it’s something that organically happened. I had an opportunity to put something together that involves musicians dealing with Indian traditions. This was back in 2007 — it was actually celebrating the 60th anniversary of Indian independence. Our first concert was in Chicago, I called those guys almost as an ad hoc thing, like “Well here’s a gig, let’s see what happens. Lets just do it.” Both Prassana and I brought compositions, and just as we started playing it felt very natural, and also just hanging out was very natural. We all had a certain rapport. Both of them grew up in cities in South India, they have a lot of similar tastes actually, and both of them are connected to the South Indian film and music scene, as well as the classical music scene. Sort of the South Indian equivalent is what is known as Bollywood. Bollywood is referring to the industry in Bombay, but this is sort of a separate world of it in the South. So they had ties to many of those film composers and had performed for film soundtracks and stuff, as well as being very active in their respective classical traditions. And then, they’ve been in the West for a long time so they have had a lot of interactions with a lot of different kinds of musicians. When we came together it wasn’t like, “Oh, here’s jazz meeting Indian music,” because like I said, I’ve been thinking about Indian music seriously for 20 years and I’ve also been hanging around Indian folks for my whole life, so actually it was really natural to come together and just start creating. I don’t mean to minimize it, but in a great and sort of really empowering way, it just wasn’t a big deal. It was just ordinary. To me it felt like hanging out with my cousins or something, where we all have a certain similar frame of reference, we’ve all had pretty different life experiences but we can hang out and kind of accept each other, you know. This group has been together for almost 5 years, and last year we were finally able to put out this album and we’ve been able to tour, in fact we just got off the road in Europe. It’s just nice to be able to explore what we can do together, and we’re not really thinking about genre or style, we’re just working from the foundations.
You know, in a way, I really feel like jazz is almost like the anti-genre because it’s so much about improvisation and this kind of openness. It hasn’t ever enjoyed the mainstream popularity of punk or hip hop, but they have similar feelings of — dissent is the wrong word, but just kind of like a wildness that other genres I think aren’t quite able to achieve. It’s hard to frame that as a question, but — just sort of observing this freedom that jazz offers to anyone that comes into contact with it, whether we want to acknowledge genre or not, both people in the jazz world and then people you’ve collaborated with that aren’t traditionally in the jazz world. Do you think growing up through jazz embedded a desire to collaborate and to have that spontaneity with people? Had you instead been a classical musician or something else, would that have changed the shape of your collaborations, both professionaly and even on a personal level — you know, as you said you felt like you were just connecting with family members?
Yeah, well the fact that this is an improvisational art form connects it both to the present moment in the sense that it’s about real time interaction, and also to other improvised art forms around the world. It also just connects it to everyday life, which is so full of improvisation anyway, so I guess what you called wildness, or spontaneity maybe is another word, for example, is the fact that things can just suddenly happen without really anyone intending anything to happen. So that role of the composer is not as primary as the role of the improviser, the person that’s playing and making choices in the moment and responding to what’s happening. Because that property is magnified in this music, it gives it this certain visceral level of possibility. It also makes it inherently open to influences from elsewhere, you could say. I mean, to say that I’m coming from jazz and not coming from these other places is a little bit of a simplification because, like I said, I grew up playing classical music, and I’ve played in rock bands and hip hop groups since I was a teenager, so that’s all a part of me too. That made it maybe easier for me to connect with people on that very basic human level and be less concerned with stylistic boundaries or assumptions like that.
I was looking at some of what could be dubbed “political work” that you’ve done, particularly with Mike Ladd and other projects, and there is something like a form of political dissent or something about music that, as you said, doesn’t hold the composer in such an essential role. I’m referring to a sort of chaos of human inspiration and impulse and access to an art form like punk or hip hop. I think particularly in punk or jazz it feels like something that anyone can jump into. That’s not to say that some people are not incredibly immersed and affluent in those vernaculars, but I wonder about that — if you feel like that has some kind of political metaphorical power in the world, particularly in this current moment.
You know, what’s funny is nowadays when people think of jazz they think of something scholastic and academic, and maybe a kind of museum piece, and partly because people don’t know the history, they don’t know how, they don’t know what happened really. It’s also because a certain narrative has been forced that puts it in that place and not in the hands of the regular folks who made it — regular and yet extraordinary at the same time. It’s kind of like the revolutionary possibility within everyday life that this music has kept — that’s partly what allowed it to have the impact it has had around the world. I think that there is something that connects it to punk rock in that way, it does seem at some level the almost spontaneous outpourings of a community. You know, in that sense of insurgency and defiance that it has embedded in it, and its language and aesthetics. That’s true with jazz too, if you look at Charles Mingus and Max Roach and John Coltrane — there was a sense of urgency in the music, there was a sense of purpose, there were connections to political activism. Especially because this music came about in the most adverse circumstances you could imagine — basically in America in early and middle of 20th century in the African American community, particularly in cities where people were navigating everyday proximity to brutality and to terror, but that’s kind of the circumstance under which this music was created, and that was something that has always inspired me. I can’t say that I ever had experiences like that or lived in fear like that, I’ve had a very privileged life by those standards, but I have felt that I’ve had to create a sense of possibility for myself as a person of color in America and among the first generation of South Asian Americans to come of age here and to have any mobility in culture, and that was a role that had to be invented to a certain extent, and to do that I had to look at people who were engaged in even a deeper level of invention and defiance, so that’s kind of where the inspiration comes from for me, even in the sense of when I connect with other south Asians in the diaspora. I’ve worked for many years with a great saxophone player named Rudresh Mahanthappa who is also Indian-American and his experiences are parallel to mine. There was partly in our collaborations, which have been ongoing for sixteen or seventeen years now, the sense that we had to invent the space for ourselves in culture.
So then even in this gesture of working with these guys in Tirtha, this band I’m bringing to Portland, for me there was a certain sense of asserting an idea of community and creating a place for ourselves in this culture of music here in America. Which, you know, if you think about it in terms of styles and stuff, like, “Oh, well, other people have mixed Indian music and jazz before or whatever,” but for me there has never been a moment like this, where different members of the diaspora could come together from different corners and different experiences and create something in the West that’s sort of a commentary on all of that, organically meeting in the middle. It’s not forty years ago John McLaughlin and Shakti were collaborating and that was one pivotal moment, but it was a traditional Indian musician and a contemporary Western jazz musician, with no other specific ties other than the fact that they occupied the same space. And for me, especially with this band, there’s more of a sense of community and asserting that connection, and asserting a place for ourselves in the world.
Some of our friends are organizers at Jazz Fest and have offered Ace readers and friends a generous deal on his show as well as Bill Frisell’s and Charlie Hunter’s. Contact the festival directly to get tickets and mention ACEJAZZ.