Vijay Iyer’s Combat Art!


Vijay Iyer

(Photo: Ebru Yildiz)

By his own account, the Vijay Iyer of a decade ago was made to feel like a “token weirdo” when moving among the high priests of a classical music establishment rooted in white privilege. He responded with small acts of protest, including a memorable commissioned work — one based on a centuries-old fragment by an establishment god — that featured dissonance so raw he now cheekily attaches an expletive to the frame of mind in which he created it.

On the cusp of age 50, Iyer seems dangerously close to developing a maturity to match his genius. While responding to injustice is still central to his aesthetic, he made clear — in a three-hour Zoom conversation in February from his Harlem home — that his view of the establishment has become less reductive as the work he does for it becomes more plentiful.

So, has the famously soft-spoken, hard-driving pianist/provocateur been tamed by the powers that be?

To be sure, he has secured the trappings of an establishment existence: a tenured Harvard professorship, a MacArthur fellowship and a growing number of classical commissions. With jazz work limited during the pandemic, he has accumulated a half-dozen or so such commissions during the lockdown-year alone. They range from a solo work for violinist Jennifer Koh to an ensemble piece for the Boston Lyric Opera. None seem to have inspired profane commentary.

Not surprisingly, he said he has learned a thing or two: “Now that I’ve gotten more into that world, more present in that world and have more relationships with great performers and have gone through this process many times — bringing the work from idea to execution with state-of-the-art performers and ensembles — I have a better sense of what the stakes are.”

But it would be a mistake to assume that Iyer has foresworn his outsider status. To the contrary: He has offered an argument that his righteous fire still burns. Exhibit No. 1: the album Uneasy, his latest vehicle for jazz trio, and one that exploits his gift for eliciting, well, unease in audiences.

Released in April, the album, his seventh on ECM, was recorded in December 2019, just weeks before the World Health Organization announced the discovery of a new coronavirus-related pneumonia.

Though the album might not exactly anticipate the coming calamity, it plays to concerns about inequality that the pandemic — and, in a similar sense, the resurgent Black Lives Matter protests following George Floyd’s killing — have helped to highlight.

Perhaps none of the album’s 10 tracks more explicitly evoke those concerns than the opener, “Children Of Flint.” The title refers to the Michigan city in which thousands of mostly African-American people were, through the actions of public officials, exposed to unsafe levels of lead in their water.

The piece, he said, is a kind of twin to a Flint-related work for solo viola he wrote for a 2019 concert at Columbia University’s Miller Theater. That work was part of a university-wide project developed around the relationship between people and water. By focusing on Flint, Iyer said, he was presenting a challenge to a largely well-off group of white concertgoers and Columbia, an institution that was “patting itself on the back for being eco-conscious.”

Like the original, he said, the new piece is “an occasion to meditate on and mourn for and care about or instigate some kind of caring around this issue.”

Musically, he said, it draws on eight bars of the original work that center on a progression in which Iyer employs the viola in an awkward way: “The piece makes the soloist vulnerable by asking them to do things that the instrument isn’t supposed to do. There are moments when it feels like it’s going to fall apart. That sound hung in my ear for a while.”

Out of it he created a structure on which he and his bandmates — Linda May Han Oh on bass and Tyshawn Sorey on drums — have built a solid but subtle evocation of anxiety, one that is especially disquieting because of the seductive pleasure of its lyricism.

By turns swelling and receding, the sound lingers in the ear, and weighs on the mind, and would do so even if it had no extramusical intent. As it happens, problems similar to those in Flint continue to beset Black neighborhoods. So the new piece remains as relevant as its predecessor.

“It still is imbued with and born of that same set of concerns, which was in response to a certain set of circumstances,” he said.

Likewise, conditions of concern and circumstance apply to the second track on the album, “Combat Breathing.” The Brooklyn Academy of Music had commissioned Iyer to open a program with a short solo piano piece. As with the piece at Columbia, he immediately thought of the commission as an opportunity to provoke by weaponizing his relationship to the audience and institution.

“It was 2014: Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice,” he said, referring to Black people killed by police. “That year was fucked up. It was like, ‘Why should I make a solo piano piece right now? What I really want to do is give this money away. What can I do not in BAM but to BAM and to the audience at BAM — to that 95 percent white concertgoing audience at BAM in Fort Greene, in Brooklyn, in a historically Black neighborhood in this institution that is historically white?’”

Iyer and choreographer Paloma McGregor organized a “die-in” in which 30 Black people lay prone on the stage in front of an audience who, unprepared for this demonstration, would be forced to contemplate the meaning of their inaction to the accompaniment of his solo piano.

“This is a moment when people who didn’t pay to see this will have to see it, will have to face it. Whatever they thought they were getting by coming to my concert, I wanted to challenge that. I wanted to open the space to others, to make it not my space — make it a space for collective action.”

In a sense, “a space for collective action” defines the realm in which the trio operates. Iyer and Sorey have closely collaborated since the day 20 years ago when Sorey showed up at Iyer’s Manhattan apartment for a kind of tryout. The day began with Sorey playing the piano, working his way from a note-for-note solo off Iyer’s 2001 album Panoptic Modes through a bit of Stockhausen through a serialist improvisation. It ended with Chinese food and an extended bonding session. In between was a full-blown jam with Carlo DeRosa on bass and Sorey making an immediate impact on drums.

“That day was so cosmic,” Iyer said. “I knew from day one he was one of the greatest musicians I would ever meet.”

Over the years, they have experienced lows and highs together, both offstage and on, from a demeaning incident near a Finnish-Estonian checkpoint to a cathartic performance at a German club on the day in 2013 when the killer of Trayvon Martin was acquitted. Sorey was also at BAM the night of the 2014 die-in, a featured member of the ensemble performing Iyer’s score for the film Radhe: Rites of Holi.

The two have hooked up in academic settings, from the time Iyer served on Sorey’s doctoral dissertation committee at Columbia to the current period, in which Sorey is a professor at the University of Pennsylvania. “This leads to conversations we don’t have in the context of the trio,” Sorey said. “It means a lot to be able to connect on more than one level, which also informs the way we play together musically. It deepens that connection that much more.”

Iyer enlisted Sorey to appear this semester in his Harvard class on composer-performers in the African diaspora. In the class, held online during the pandemic, discussions sometimes turn to disparities, a subject the two discuss privately in relation to their elite institutions. “We mostly talk about our experience with certain types of students who carry a certain type of privilege,” Sorey said, “how sometimes their behavior can be a turnoff in a lot of ways.”

The two are also co-artistic directors at the Banff International Workshop in Jazz and Creative Music in British Columbia, Canada, where Oh was recruited as a faculty member and first played with Iyer and Sorey in a trio format. The initial soundings suggested a convergence of spirits, though the group needed to be nurtured.

“Like minds often gravitate toward each other,” Oh said. “But it’s important to come to some sort of agreement musically.”

That kind of agreement became obvious as the threesome shared bandstands outside of Banff, notably at a well-received night in January 2019 at the Jazz Standard. The final decision to become a recording unit was made the following summer when the three were again at Banff, where they put together a trio set for the students.

“I had a flash of intuition,” Iyer recalled. “I said, ‘Hey, you guys want to make a record?’ They were like, ‘Yes.’ We got it done in a few months, from August to December.

“This feeling we had with Tyshawn and Linda had a certain electricity and drive. It felt easy. It fell into place. It’s a different energy, a different sense of pulse, a different propulsiveness, a different exploratory feeling, a different anchoring. It felt alive in a new way.”

Given the three-way simpatico, there was no problem translating a tune like “Combat Breathing” into an in-studio exercise without losing the provocative intent, even though the presence of an audience seemed critical to that intent.

“It just becomes subject to other forces,” Iyer said. “Everything we are comes into play, which means committing to a certain vulnerability around the material, around the execution of it so that it’s not like, ‘We did it, we’re awesome.’ It’s about facing risk, facing the unknown. That’s the recurring theme.”

For Sorey, the need to take risks and the urge to incite are intertwined and immutable, whatever the space. “You want to be in tune with the kind of energy in that room, the temperature — getting a feel for whoever’s in that room, which creates this feeling of provocation,” he said. “It creates this feeling of, ‘I want them to come with me. I want them to go somewhere with me. If I’m going to create a work in a studio, I want it to do something.’”

Sorey has worked with Iyer on four albums, all of which convey that kind of resolve. “He’s always been defiant,” Iyer said. “That’s who he is. He can push it beyond what it was ever meant to do, to spin it into something unimagined, unprecedented. That’s what he’s always done, and that to me is that defiance. That is the Black radical tradition.”

For his part, Sorey embraced Iyer’s invocation of defiance in his characterization: “My very being is exactly that, as a composer and a performer. I might even say ‘unapologetically defiant.’”

With Iyer, he said, no apologies were ever needed: “The more I got to know him, it became a thing like, ‘Finally, here’s somebody who can really accept what I can bring to the music.’ He’s not trying to tell me what to play or what to do.”

Trust is at the heart of it. Iyer presents bare-bones charts, depending on his musicians to make the right decisions. That approach, Sorey said, is very much in the tradition of African-American bandleaders: “A lot of what his music is are these skeletal structures, which take so much from the Black aesthetic from a creative standpoint. It’s similar to what people in the swing era and in bebop were doing. They had these very skeletal forms, but you could make so much music out of those forms.”

Iyer also looks to African-American tradition in his concept of an activism tied to the relationship between artist and circumstance, which reflects in no small measure his appreciation of the way Black musicians have dealt with audiences ignorant of their history. “I think about that a lot,” he said. “That is actually a major through-line in the history of this thing that’s called jazz — Black artists defiantly showing up and being present in white spaces.”

Recalling a conversation with the late Muhal Richard Abrams, he noted that, when the AACM legend first played for European audiences, who knew nothing about the cultural milieu of Chicago’s South Side, he was able to develop a sense of reciprocity with them: “It’s something deep about what we are as human beings. That we were able to cut across this vast divide between us and them, that’s activism too. It’s not labeled as such. It doesn’t have an agitprop title. But it’s doing something only music can do.”

Tellingly, this communication is possible because of — not in spite of — the sometimes-brutal honesty with which the musicians carry their messages. Iyer said that an invitation to sit in Geri Allen’s piano chair after her death in 2017 and play Charlie Parker’s “Ah-Leu-Cha” at the Newport Jazz Festival motivated him to retrieve a live recording of Miles Davis’ group playing the tune before a largely white audience at Newport in 1958. The everyday indignities Davis and his cohort had suffered were well documented and served as subtext for the performance. A year after the performance, Davis was infamously beaten by police in New York.

“I could not believe the intensity, the fire, the rawness,” Iyer said. “Then I was thinking, ‘What does it feel like for them to face the Newport audience and play this music?’ That’s what you’re hearing at this moment. It’s an encounter. They’re not just delivering the goods. It’s actually delivering them in a certain way with a certain kind of ferocity — dare I say frustration or rage or disgust.”

In Iyer’s own time, working with veterans like drummer Andrew Cyrille and bassist Reggie Workman, he said he had experienced that level of commitment: “What I’ve found is that often in live performance — this is a generational thing, I think — they kind of approach it like combat.”

Having absorbed their lessons, Iyer appears to have adopted something of their take-no-prisoners approach. The best evidence on the new album may be “Combat Breathing” itself. On it, he slashes and splashes his way across the keyboard canvas with the kind of abandon few pianists can muster while maintaining full control of their faculties. In his case, of course, those faculties are considerable. The result is a work of proportion equal to its power.

The moment of greatest power — one in which the individual and collective aspects of the trio collide and connect most urgently — may come toward the end of “Combat Breathing.” After a solo turn by Oh, Iyer takes a second solo on a one-bar vamp. Together the band builds a narrative, with Iyer laying down long and winding lines around the center of action and Oh and Sorey playing off each other, creating a vortex of sound that, with each cycle of tension and release, becomes more forceful until it sweeps Iyer into the swirl.

“I would say that particular arc of those couple of minutes of me playing there has something in common with that strain of playing of Coltrane’s band in the ’60s,” Iyer said.

When a pianist discusses John Coltrane, the subject of McCoy Tyner will naturally be raised. And while Iyer said he never tried to play like Coltrane’s pianist, he did admire the way Tyner cut through the churn created by the saxophonist and drummer Elvin Jones. Iyer said he began to find his own solutions around the time of Reimagining (2005), running arpeggio-like figures that over time became more complex and refined, yielding a propulsive effect like Tyner’s. That strategy has reached a peak of sorts on Uneasy.

Iyer’s pianism gets vigorous — and rigorous — workouts throughout the album: plumbing the complex reharmonization on Cole Porter’s “Night And Day”; negotiating the two-handed ostinato on the album’s other cover, Allen’s “Drummer’s Song”; playing through the title track’s intricate metric patterns with serpentine erudition.

A more restrained pianism is deployed on “Augury.” Described by Iyer as a solo meditation, it is, at three-and-a-half minutes, the shortest track on the album and the only one on which Iyer formally abandons the compositional side of his musical brain for the strictly intuitive. On it, he said, he employs something akin to what the surrealists called automatic writing, though the tremulous portent he fashions arguably owes more to the impressionists.

“‘Augury,’” he said, “is doing something that none of the other pieces on the record are doing.”

Despite Iyer’s ability to command the keyboard, he isn’t about pianistic display. Fellow pianist Craig Taborn, who has been engaged in two-piano collaborations with Iyer since they both belonged to Roscoe Mitchell’s band 23 years ago, may have said it best:

“Vijay has a certain kind of calling. There’s an ethic there. The music, when he’s engaged with it, has the feeling and sense that there’s a much larger purpose that we’re contending with.”

For the onetime token weirdo, the ultimate purpose remains to be seen. He has made inroads at Harvard, helping to bring onto the faculty Black artists like Esperanza Spalding and Yvette Janine Jackson. But as meaningful as such gestures are, the task ahead will be bigger, especially post-pandemic.

“I’m really concerned about our collective futures, what it is we’ll be able to do together,” Iyer said.

“Performing artists have suffered profoundly. Do we want to rebuild or start from scratch and rethink the whole system?” DB

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