Iyer, Taborn Build Something Majestic on New ECM Album


Craig Tabor (left) and Vijay Iyer pay tribute to artists and pianists who recently have passed on Transitory Poems.

(Photo: Monica Jane Frisell/ECM Records)

I first heard this duo perform in Norway, at the Moldejazz festival. Where did that concert fall, in terms of this project’s overall life span?

Iyer: That was in 2017. We’d been playing duo concerts for about 10 years by then. It started inside of Roscoe Mitchell’s Note Factory, in the early 2000s. So, that dates it back about 18 years, actually. It has been an evolving process. Even the process of listening and relating in this particular way was born, basically, in the apprenticeship mode with Roscoe Mitchell.

The first duo concerts were at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton. We built it over a week and then we did a couple of nights’ worth of concerts. That really felt like the beginning of something.

You both appear on the epic, 21-disc Art Ensemble box set released by ECM last year.

Iyer: Oh, yes, with Far Side [recorded in 2007 by Roscoe Mitchell’s The Note Factory, featuring both Iyer and Taborn on piano]. And [Wadada Leo Smith’s 1979 album] Divine Love is on there—that’s one of the greatest albums of all time, without a doubt.

You belong to the group of musicians connected to ECM and the AACM.

Iyer: That’s right. I started recording for ECM in 2013 and people kept asking me, “What’s it like to be on the same label as Chick Corea and Gary Burton and Pat Metheny and Keith Jarrett and so on?” I would say, “Well, I’m on the same label as Lester Bowie.” That, to me, was very important. What about [Bowie’s] Avant Pop, or what about Wadada [Leo Smith] and his Divine Love? There were all those seminal Art Ensemble albums I loved—Nice Guys, The Third Decade.

What defined ECM, to me, before anything else, was all of that stuff. There was a sense of continuity that made sense to me, because I had apprenticed with all these guys and collaborated with them—and continue to. I learned so much about music in their presence. Certainly, seeing the Art Ensemble live and seeing Roscoe and Malachi [Favors Maghostut] and all of them in different guises in the ’90s was formative for me. I wouldn’t be the musician I am without all of them. Getting to work with them in different ways over the years has been critical.

I hear that mode of listening and that mode of collaborative creation as one of the defining elements of ECM records. When the history is told, people tend to foreground all of this other stuff, but to me, that [AACM-affiliated] stuff is key. I think if you asked Manfred [Eicher, ECM founder and head], he’d probably agree.

Taborn: It’s also evident to me. My first work with Roscoe, for instance, was on the Nine To Get Ready recording [made in 1997]. I was playing Roscoe’s music for the first time and beginning to learn that approach to improvising, while working with Manfred. The whole thing is of a piece for me, in my memory.

I also met Muhal then. He attended the rehearsal, just to show support. He came over and showed me two things about where to voice things in the register. It was like a light bulb. It was about the overtones. He was saying, “See, these are doing that, so you might put that here. …” It was just a little thing and he wasn’t being invasive. I was saying, “Oh, of course, that’s it.” I was freaked out. That was within the first year of my moving to New York [from Minneapolis].

Was Muhal a guiding light for both of you?

Iyer: Certainly. I met him when I was visiting New York in ’96 or ’97. I had talks with him. He gave me some recommendations and just sort of kept me in the mix. He was always open and always had some very insightful things to say about music and about the world. Also, I was working with Steve Coleman in the ’90s, and that was around the time when Steve was getting to know Muhal, so he was often around.

I was also very close with George Lewis, starting in ’94. He became an informal and formal mentor. He was on my doctoral committee [for a Ph.D. earned at the University of California, Berkeley]. We’ve been in league ever since.

But Muhal was really important. He had this way of making all these connections across disparate fields of inquiry. He could make philosophical utterances in very plainspoken language that would stay with you. There was something he told me, in the ’90s, about Monk. He said, “Yeah, Monk was always creating.” I still think about that phrase almost every day. Monk was a composer and an improviser and a bandleader and a piano player. All of those things were somehow one thing. Even as the decades went by and he was playing the same music, he was still creating in every moment.

You can understand that sensibility and see how it carries over into someone like Muhal or Roscoe or Wadada. Even when you have fixed elements in your music, the way you relate to them and the process is very open. Every sound you make is a choice, and it’s a choice made in relation to everything happening around you and everything that’s part of the fabric of your music.

Vijay, the 2017 Ojai Music Festival, which you directed, featured a memorable performance by The Trio and also an AACM-themed onstage interview with Muhal, who spoke simply, yet profoundly.

Iyer: Yes, always. Then the concert on Sunday with The Trio [Abrams, Mitchell and Lewis]. That was one of Muhal’s final performances. People were in tears after that. We were lucky to share the planet with him in those years.

The Transitory Poems was recorded last year in Budapest. What was special about that particular show?

Iyer: It was a beautiful place to record. The instruments were really nice. Things added up in a nice way. Each night [on that tour] had its own discoveries, but a lot came out of this Budapest concert. We had some nice, compact statements of certain ideas that made sense to piece together. I think we reordered a few things and maybe there were a couple of things we cut, but it was mostly that concert. It’s nice to have a whole evening intact, so you get a sense of the arc of a performance.

Craig, how different is the context between a solo piano setting and a duo with the same instrument? Is it exponentially different?

Taborn: It is, but the more relative factor is the other pianist. I’ve done other piano duos.

Iyer: So have I.

Taborn: From the outside, people seem to wonder, “Oh, there are two pianos. How do you negotiate that?” But it’s really about negotiating two pianists [laughs]. That’s the real key factor.

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