In trying to get a clear picture of pianist Vijay Iyer, it’s hard to know which direction to look. His series at the Walker this Thursday and Friday, however, is a start. The two nights reveal a large part of the Venn diagram musical world he inhabits.
Iyer came of age as a jazz musician in the Bay Area, playing with some first-wave avant-garde jazz musicians in the process. In a video for Alverno Presents last year, Iyer spoke about why he chose to be a jazz musician: “I had a lot of amazing experiences playing with elder musicians, in Oakland for example… people who had been part of the history of [jazz] music for decades already. To see the music in motion, to experience it as connected to a community, and also to feel welcome in that place, clinched it for me.”
Wadada Leo Smith, on the program Thursday night, is a professor at CalArts and very much a part of the Bay Area scene that is one part of Iyer’s musical provenance.
On the program Friday night is a duo with Parisian-based hip-hop/spoken word artist Mike Ladd, who Iyer collaborated with on the 2004 album In What Language? based on the airport detention of Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi (whose smuggled-to-Cannes-on-a-USB-in-a-cake This is Not a Film was Walker film curator Sheryl Mousley’s vote for best film of 2011). Pitchfork wrote:
In April of 2001, Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi was merely passing through New York’s JFK International Airport, in transit from a film festival in Hong Kong to another in Buenos Aires, when he was detained by the INS for refusing to be fingerprinted, and kept in a crowded holding cell for ten hours. He was ultimately returned to Hong Kong in handcuffs, famously attempting to explain himself to his fellow passengers: “I’m not a thief! I’m not a murderer! I am just an Iranian, a filmmaker. But how could I tell this, in what language?”
The Iyer+Ladd album is a powerful statement, with continuing resonance for “imagining a new moment for community in the post-9/11 world of surveillance of people of color, which has created a force for us coming together,” as Iyer told the Star Tribune Saturday.
Iyer’s experience with and envisioning of community informs his musical work and vice versa. In an interview with Toronto blog The Ethnic Aisle, Iyer said that, “In the Bay Area I connected with Asian Improv Arts. They are community organizers as well as creative musicians, so they dealt with identity in this empowering way. It wasn’t just ornamental, they had this radical sensibility that connected music to activism, so working with elements of your identity or heritage in the music was part of the whole mission and ideology. That was really inspiring; it was a way for me to be myself in the music which I’d never really seen before, at that time.”
Friday night’s show at the Walker will conclude with a set by Tirtha (pronounced THEER-tha), another Iyer trio, featuring Nitin Mitta on table/percussion and Prasanna on guitar and vox. Iyer told the Star Tribune that, “Tirtha to me is a political project because it encourages shared creativity across the South Asian diaspora.” Musically, Tirtha merges Carnatic forms with jazz and “fuse their influences through many other catalysts, including Reichian minimalism and rock,” according to the Guardian.
There was “shared creativity across the South Asian diaspora” also on Vijay Iyer Trio’s 2009 album Historicity, in their cover of M.I.A.’s “Galang.” The Vijay Iyer Trio will presumably be playing many new cuts from their forthcoming album Accelerando (which is scheduled for release March 13) on Thursday night, but I hope they revive this cover for the set.
Iyer’s place in the indie/pop sphere is one aspect of the Venn diagram that won’t be covered in the Walker two-night program. Iyer has collaborated with hip-hop group Das Racist, producing their track “Free Jazzmatazz.” The Independent Film Channel reports that Iyer will also be co-starring in a short film Dosa Hunt, still to-be-released, in which “Rostam Batmanglij (Vampire Weekend), Vijay Iyer, Ashok Kondabolu (Das Racist), Alan Palomo (Neon Indian), Amrit Singh (Stereogum), Himanshu Suri (Das Racist), and Anand Wilder (Yeasayer)… pile into a van… looking for the best dosa in New York City.” Iyer also recently contributed a remix of Meredith Monk’s “Rain” for a Meredith Monk remix album produced by DJ Spooky, which also features remixes by Björk and Nico Muhly. Thus the indie/pop connections circle back to the realm of the avant-garde; Vijay Iyer’s musical world might be better described as a Möbius strip than a Venn diagram.
And speaking of Möbius strips, Iyer could tell us a lot about them. He recently led a talk on “Music and Math” at Duke University that featured “a timbre experiment…called ‘a Möbius strip of pitch.’” Iyer completed undergraduate studies at Yale in Math and Physics, and finished his PhD in Technology and the Arts at UC-Berkeley. Thus his choice to play jazz seems significant for what he has left behind, or rather, left on the side. His many musical projects show the potential that music holds for building community and opening up a dialogue about political engagement and activism.
He has said, “Trying to do the impossible is what jazz is to me.”