A jazz piano innovator driven by his sense of social and political malaise

Vijay Iyer is uncomfortable. The 50-year-old American pianist, considered one of the leading innovators in creative music, chose Uneasy as the title of his latest album, released in 2021 on hallowed label ECM. A maelstrom of dense harmonies and ambiguous grooves, the record features Iyer’s intensely creative working trio with bassist Lina May Han Oh and drummer Tyshawn Sorey, and has been enthusiastically received on both sides of the Atlantic.

It has a historical urgency and sense of challenge that connects it to great militant musicians of the civil rights era such as John Coltrane, Nina Simone and Charles Mingus, and the titles of Iyer’s tunes – Children of Flint, Combat Breathing – leave the listener in no doubt that there is political as well as musical consciousness at work here. So what exactly worries Vijay Iyer?

“A lot of things,” he replies with an embarrassed laugh. “Walking around today, I felt very nervous. I mean, I live in New York. I think the whole 21st century has been characterized by a sense of unease, certainly since 9/11, but even before. For Iyer, the stolen election of George Bush – “previously the worst president of all time” – and the ensuing erosion of faith in democracy was a significant moment.

“Bush led us into these disastrous, unnecessary, genocidal wars against brown-skinned enemies, which then also fostered a whole lot of attitudes towards brown-skinned people here, including people like me. what does it mean to be called an American when this thing called America is ruining lives, wiping out populations in the Middle East and then sending our troops to deal with it and do it on our behalf and then what repercussions does that had on the ground here? What was it like to live in New York when this was happening? How were our communities controlled and monitored? How were we treated while in transit and at what did we belong to?

“This piece called Uneasy was written in 2011, because it always was, even during the prosperous years of Obama, it always felt like something was broken here”

“That sense of belonging was very tenuous, and that’s when it all started. There were those times when maybe something changed, but that undercurrent of unease never went away. In fact, this piece called Uneasy was written in 2011, because it was always the case, even during the prosperous years of Obama, it always felt like something was broken here, and that unease was palpable in the street.

Vijay Iyer says his connection to the piano is “very primitive, very physical, very exploratory and open, and it goes back to my earliest memories”.

The child of Indian immigrants (his father was a pharmaceutical chemist who moved to the United States in 1963; his mother followed a year later), Iyer grew up in upstate New York, a precocious child and scientist who, from an early age, was perfectly aware of his identity. It’s a journey that has given him a unique perspective on race in America.

“American immigration law has always been racist, and it still is,” he says, “in the sense that non-white people were carefully selected. They had virtually no non-Western immigrants allowed. So we were among the first South Asian American children. We were part of that first generation of children born to immigrants from outside the West, and that meant that our experience was transitory. We were new, we were a new population, we were different, we were weird, we didn’t have a lot of people like us around, so that was what our childhood was like, very improvised in a way, finding a way to be where you didn’t really have a lot of clear precedents as a new population, as a member of this new community that was hardly a community itself.”

sixteenth size violin

Music came into her life at the age of three when her parents bought her a sixteenth-size violin, but it was the old Baldwin spruce piano her parents bought for her older sister that really captivated her. imagination.

“My connection to the piano is very primitive, very physical, very exploratory and open, and it goes back to my earliest memories”

“I just started gravitating to her piano because it was more available. You can just lay your hands on it and make some noise. One of my earliest musical memories is tapping on it with her. I had three years old, and I just remember the feeling of rocking the instrument, and also being in this duet with her. We were both making sounds and having them fill the room with sounds, fill our ears and our body of sounds, so it was collaborative, it was vibrational, it was really exciting and exploratory.

“A part of me always tries to reclaim that experience when I play the piano. My connection with her is very primitive, very physical, very exploratory and open, and it goes back to my earliest memories.

Iyer speaks slowly and deliberately, carefully weighing his words, and even relatively simple questions are answered with thought, precision, and plenty of historical context. Later, when we talk about the legacy of the black radicals of the 1960s who inspired him, like the pioneering free pianist Cecil Taylor and the avant-garde collective Art Ensemble of Chicago, I wonder if he feels the same sense of responsibility to express political ideals.

“I feel a sense of responsibility,” he retorts, “to the people who nurtured me, who were almost entirely older African-American visionary artists, many of whom were uncredited with intelligence. i’m in community with dozens of people like that, dozens of great black artists, who i’ve apprenticed with, who i’ve collaborated with, who i’ve hung out with, who i’ve traveled the world with So you feel like you’re in a moment where even them aren’t safe. I mean, I have moments where I didn’t feel safe, and knowing that they feel like that everything time is their whole life. So that’s where it came from, it’s personal in that sense. It’s out of love and concern for the people who have loved and cared for me.

He bristles when I suggest that math or physics might directly influence his music. ‘It’s if you don’t listen to my music’

Iyer has a reputation as an intellectual. A physics graduate from Yale, he seemed ready to follow his father into the scientific world when, in 1994, he gave it all up for a life in music. Four years later, he submitted a doctoral dissertation to the University of California at Berkeley entitled Microstructures of Feel, Macrostructures of Sound: Embodied Cognition in West African and African-American Musics. The title certainly suggests an analytical mind at work, but he bristles when I suggest that math or physics might directly inform his music.

“That’s if you don’t listen to my music, that might be your experience, but that’s not how the music feels to me or our audience. That’s just not my experience with music” “, he says firmly. “I hear what it is but I’ve never experienced music this way. Like I said, my earliest memories [of music] embodied, vibratory experiences, feeling my body shaking, feeling the room shaking, feeling the instrument shaking. And the pulse comes from doing things, from doing things like walking, so when you count it’s a remnant of something more embodied. It’s a mental process that’s only possible because of our embodied experience, so it’s not the other way around, the movement comes first. And that’s sort of the subject of my thesis.


As a performer and composer at the forefront of creative music, does he have a vision of where creative music is headed in the 21st century? His response is usually cautious, as if he had been misunderstood in the past.

“I think what matters to me is sustainability,” he says, “and certainly the fact that there are thousands of young musicians who want to be part of it, who are trying to create their own versions means it has a future no doubt it has a future what is it in terms of culture hierarchy i guess i cant invest too much in that .

“You know, there was a time when I started to believe that people like me and (fellow American pianists) Craig Taborn and Jason Maron might be some of the last to really have a career in this music. I don’t know how it’s going to play out, but it’s like the opportunities have dissipated and dispersed. It’s a different game now.

But if Vijay Iyer is uncomfortable, he is also optimistic. “Creating music gives us a space where we can imagine a better world,” he says. “Planning a tour, walking in the door and going to play a concert in front of a room full of people, is to believe that despite everything, we can do something that matters to each other.”

The Vijay Iyer Trio, featuring Linda May Han Oh (bass) and Jeremy Dutton (drums), perform as part of the Perspectives Series at the National Concert Hall on Tuesday, March 1 at 8 p.m. More than nch.ie

Comments are closed.