Renowned jazz musician Vijay Iyer can be categorised by his distaste for categories and foremost among these is jazz itself.
That jazz and “classical” forms of Indian music have had a history of affinity and interaction is profoundly odd. The two are – socially at least – opposites. Jazz began as the music of former slaves. Throughout its history, it has been tied to resistance and to the struggle for black liberation. It had to fight to even be considered music by the white cultural establishment. In India, the music we call Hindustani and Carnatic have been elite forms, patronised by courts and temples and practiced and listened to by the privileged. It is ironic, that someone like John Coltrane could feel such affinity for — and even name his son after — a bhadralok like Ravi Shankar. It’s a rich and contradictory history and it was unclear where to locate Vijay Iyer within it. So on a grey morning, we took the bus through light rain to meet Iyer at his house in Harlem.
Iyer was born in Albany to Tamil parents who, like most Indian immigrants during the Cold War, went to the US because of their scientific and technical expertise. He started learning the violin when he was three , while his sister learnt the piano. He didn’t listen to much Indian music growing up. “My parents had some records that they’d brought from India, but the stereo was mostly commandeered by my sister and I. We usually played pop and rock music.” The first record his sister brought home was Saturday Night Fever; the first record he owned was Eddy Grant’s Electric Avenue. “[My sister’s] friends were really into The Police so then I got really into them and the Beatles too. And then I was in a rock band in high school, so I had to learn about Led Zeppelin and Jimi Hendrix.”
He used his sister’s piano to teach himself how to play it. Late in high school, he swerved towards jazz because of the music of Thelonius Monk, who remains his most salient influence. In grad school, having played all throughout college, he decided – with the encouragement of saxophonist Steve Coleman – to become a musician. In the ’90s he began collaborating with the alto saxophonist, Rudresh Mahanthappa, with whom he’s made nine albums since then. As a duo, they’re remarkable not only because they can do anything, technically, but also because they can create and nuance almost any mood originally. There’s the jubilance of a song like ‘Configurations’, the melancholy of ‘Come Back’, the restrained anger and timely explosions of ‘Because of Guns’ (a reworking of Jimi Hendrix’s ‘Hey Joe’).
The pianists who influenced Iyer were all composers. “They were interested, not so much in just soloing over something, but in actually building something through improvisation.” From Carnatic music, but also from Greek and West African and Afro-Cuban music, he had borrowed various kinds of “rhythmic language”.
“In my music I’ve tried, for example, to play in five to the point where it’s just normal”. He’s also tried to tap into what he calls a “dance impulse” behind these kinds of music. “We in the West tend to believe that you can only dance to duple metres, but I’ve been to Greek weddings, I’ve been to Senegal, and it turns out people can dance to whatever they wanna dance to.”
A few days before interviewing him, we’d seen Iyer play at Columbia’s Miller Theatre. It was a full house. The audience was diverse in age, but not in colour. The night before, Iyer and his trio had played at Princeton, which I imagine was more sedate and white-collared.
Iyer plays at a lot of colleges and is a professor at Harvard, where he works on music and cognition. He just finished a residency at the Met Breuer. These details produce one narrative by which we can make sense of Iyer.
But it’s a narrative that angers him, a narrative that he vehemently resists.
“Pretty much every critic that’s written about me — and in the music business when you’re reviewed, it means a white man’s writing about you — has called my music ‘cerebral’. Or ‘mathematical’ – that’s another word they use. And that’s doubly racist”.
Doubly racist because it shows an inability to read Iyer’s music beyond the fact that he’s Indian-American. Treating his music as though it were an extension of his academic life allows us to think that although he plays in a subversive tradition, Iyer is a type we all recognise: the good Brahmin boy. Calling him ‘cerebral’, as Iyer puts it, is also “a way of excluding me from blackness”, because it implies that black music is the opposite: sensuous, unintellectual.
Valid as that is, it remains a narrative that’s hard to escape. The way Iyer speaks, the way he takes long pauses to search for the right word, – he says “the music we call jazz” instead of just ‘jazz’ and “what we call the political” rather than ‘the political’ – is reminiscent of the way a professor speaks. The titles of his works don’t do much to dispel the labels he abhors – Relativist’s Waltz, Panoptic Modes, Entropy and Time, Historicity. He says emphatically that Harvard hired him for his work as an artist. His music is often too rhythmically complex to be sung or danced to and seems pretty well suited to the academy.
Besides his work with Mahanthappa, Iyer’s primary musical engagement has been with his trio, in which he is accompanied by the bassist Stephan Crump and the drummer Marcus Gilmore. Their covers (‘Human Nature’, ‘Galang’, ‘Mystic Brew’), which take after Coltrane’s cover of ‘My Favourite Things’, are what I love most in Iyer’s works.
“The influence of Indian music on Jazz didn’t start with me or Rudresh; it’s not new,” he says. “John Coltrane took a song right from the top of the billboard charts, a song that everyone in America was familiar with and turned it, partly by stripping away most of its harmonics and building the piece around a drone, into a modal piece. It was his version of ragas, you know, and that emerged directly from his interaction with Hindustani music”.
Iyer’s own covers express what ‘My Favourite Things’ does: delight in virtuosity and in experimentation. They’re a celebration of the medium itself, of “music’s ability to take us places we didn’t know we could go”. And to celebrate the human instinct – which Iyer takes his musical impulse to be.
There’s something brilliantly casual about Coltrane’s borrowing of the most blandly familiar pop music and Indian classical music for the same piece – an enthusiasm that refuses to define itself in terms of the political or the cultural, that eludes categories. So I suspect Iyer is telling me something about himself by bringing this song up.
“I’m influenced not only by Indian music but also by John Coltrane, by everything he did, of which ‘My Favourite Things’ is just one of many”. He goes on to list the many pianists – all of whom are American – that have influenced him. The prompt was, “Describe the influence of Indian music on your playing.”
There’s an anxiety in his response and it’s the anxiety of someone used to his music being explained through his ethnicity. This might explain the restlessness and range of Iyer’s music, both in terms of its borrowings and of the way it moves. He has (as he is quick to remind me when I persist in talking about India) collaborated with West African and Afro-Cuban musicians; he has learnt from Greek wedding music. In a piece like ‘Mystic Brew’, or ‘Historicity’, shifts in pace, in rhythm, in mood, happen suddenly, like the musicians are impatient; they go abruptly from frenzied to mellow, from dizzyingly complex to just groovy. The music, like Iyer himself, resists stasis and does not want to be pinned down.
Paradoxically, it is precisely this that allows us to pin Iyer down. We can categorise him by his distaste for categories and foremost among these categories is jazz itself. He prefers “creative music”, which may as well be ‘music’. “Historically, it’s a category that’s allowed white critics to decide what gets included in it and it’s a music where most of the major practitioners — Miles, Coltrane, Lester Young — have rejected the label.” Jazz, then, or Iyer’s version of the music we call jazz, is defined by a resistance to itself, by a refusal to be whatever white critics thought were most essential about it. It is the same for Iyer’s Indianness.
Historical interactions between Indian and Black culture – in music at least – emerged in a Harlem whose atmosphere was marked by an energetic eclecticism. People like Don Cherry and the Coltranes (Alice and John) were in dialogue with many cultures, ideologies and music and they picked whatever they thought was cool from them. To isolate their relationship with one in search of a unique affinity is to miss the point of the entire ecosystem.
Note: This piece has been written with inputs from Alex Garnick, a student at Columbia University and a jazz musician.
Ashik Kumar is a writer from Chennai who studies at Columbia University.