All That Jazz

Vijay Iyer left a career in physics and math to become a jazz phenomenon.

July 13, 2011

Photographer Jason (Woei-Ping) Chen

Writer Angela Pang

Physicist, mathematician, composer and one of today's most acclaimed jazz artists — pianist Vijay Iyer is a modern-day renaissance man.

Whether he's performing solo or with one of his two trios — the Vijay Iyer Trio or the newly formed Tirtha — critics adore him. The last year saw an avalanche of accolades for Iyer, including a Grammy nomination for Best Jazz Instrumental Album for the Vijay Iyer Trio’s highly acclaimed Historicity. The Jazz Journalists Association named Iyer, 40, the 2010 Musician of the Year and his debut album, Solo, was named one of the Top 10 Jazz Albums of 2010 by numerous critics and publications including the Los Angeles Times and Chicago Tribune. He was also selected as one of the 50 most influential global Indians by GQ India in 2010. He has collaborated with artists as diverse as Amiri Baraka, Dead Prez, Miya Masaoka, Karsh Kale, DJ Spooky and Bill Morrison, among many others.

The native of Albany, NY, recently discussed from his home in New York City how playing the piano helps him express himself, how he sold his parents on the idea of switching careers from mathematics and physics to music and whether all this praise has given him an inflated ego.

How do you feel about all these accolades? Has it gotten to your head?
[Laughs] I don't think it has. These titles, more than anything, have created more opportunities for me to perform in front of people. That is what every artist strives for and I've been privileged to be able to perform in concerts year round. They don't translate to record sales, but they do put you on the map for industry people. When I first started, presenters were worried that I could not fill an auditorium. Now, they don't say no immediately to giving me a gig.

Where does your passion for jazz and piano come from?
My parents are not musicians nor did they have any knowledge of or connection to jazz. But growing up, I played Western classical violin and my sister played piano. I started playing piano for fun since it was around.

With classical violin, you're playing someone else's music and you always feel like you're a small part of a large machine in an orchestra. But with the piano, it's organic, spontaneous and expressive — the complete opposite. Violin was controlled, regimented with lessons; with piano, it was always about improvising and creating music on my own terms. Over the years, piano became very important to me and a way for me to express myself.

I became exposed to jazz in high school. We had a jazz ensemble and they allowed me to play piano. That gave me the opportunity to get started.

How did your parents, emigrants from southern India, react when you went into music after you studied mathematics and physics as an undergraduate at Yale and then got a Ph.D. in technology and the arts at University of California, Berkeley?
I made the decision when I was 23 years old to make a career out of music. This was not easy for my parents to accept initially. They would always ask when I was going to get a real job. But it is something they have come to understand and embrace. What's made it easy for them is the fact that I've been successful, receiving recognition from newspapers and critics and winning awards — giving them tangible proof that I could do this, this is who I am and that I wasn't delusional.

Who are some of your favorite pianists or composers?
Thelonious Monk, Duke Ellington, Randy Weston and Andrew Hill. They all have an orchestral and constructive approach to piano, employing the full range of the instrument. There are pianists who dwell in the middle, but these guys think about the sound, density and space.

If you could work with any Asian musician, who would it be and why?
M.I.A. — who wouldn't! Also the guys of Das Racist. I did a track with them on their Sit Down, Man mixtape and would like to do more with them. They're great.

Any up-and-coming Asian American musicians to look out for?
Rafiq Bhatia. This young guitarist and composer is very gifted and ambitious with a lot of interesting ideas. And Jon Irabagon, who won the 2008 Thelonious Monk International Saxophone Competition.

You perform solo and in trios and groups. Which do you prefer?
I like both for many reasons. I have an inherently collaborative nature and enjoy the shared experience of making music together. Performing and touring solo is like being on a retreat and it makes you very focused and disciplined on what you're creating.

The debut album of your new band Tirtha features Indian musicians like guitarist-composer Prasanna and tabla player Nitin Mitta. What was it like working with them?
Though I grew up in the US and they grew up in India, performing together felt very natural. We all have shared rhythmic sensibilities and the soul of our band comes from us improvising together. You'll hear a clear connection to both Indian music and jazz, and something that’s also neither of those things.

Interview condensed by Hyphen editors.

Magazine Section: