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.