Vijay Iyer had a distinctly different demeanor from many musicians that I’ve met in the past. It wasn’t that difficult to spot him from my table when I arrived at the Birdland Jazz Club — he looked exactly the way I’d seen him in pictures: sharp, clean-cut, emanating professionalism. In fact, his image was so overwhelming that my father had to pull me out of my seat to go introduce myself to him. (Thanks, Dad.)
I can best compare Iyer’s music to that of Stravinsky’s. By the end of each piece, it’s challenging to come away from it with the melody ringing in your head; rather, it’s an array of innovative chords, unique motifs that you wish you could write down on paper to use later, and a strange image of visually disconnected yet completely intertwined group of musicians that’s stuck in your head when you leave the set. Initially I felt like I was watching three different performances from three different musicians at the same time — but as the tunes progressed, and as I grasped a better understanding of each musician, I also slowly could see a connection between the three. It seems like listening to Iyer’s music is somewhat of an intellectual pursuit.
Throughout my studies in jazz as a high school student, I’ve been told many different opinions about instruments and their respective roles in jazz — specifically, in a combo setting, I’ve been repeatedly told that it’s my job as the pianist to lay down the chords; the drummer’s job to maintain the beat; the bass’s job to set the groove; the horns’ jobs to establish the melody. These concepts have consistently held true through my high school combo and the jazz group at CalArts, but it’s as if all these rules were broken that night at Birdland. Justin Brown (drums) was often more colorful than beat-oriented; Iyer even held the bass line at some moments; Stephan Crump (bass) seemed to even have more of a melodic element than a groove at times. I believe what struck me the most was the fact that this all wasn’t confusing — in fact, everything that Iyer, Brown, and Crump played made complete sense, despite the fact that they were going against every rule I’d ever learned about playing in small jazz ensembles.
Perhaps the Vijay Iyer trio was a reminder to me that if jazz does have rules, they’re completely arbitrary.
I’ve been giving a set list for each performance I’ve attended this past week, but unfortunately the only tune Iyer mentioned was an adaption of Michael Jackson’s Human Nature, where he added: “I just met someone who was born in 1993, so I was afraid she wouldn’t know that one…I graduated in 1992, so…”
(That person, by the way, is yours truly.)
He also played some pieces from his recent album, Historicity.
I was also able to talk to Iyer afterwards:
On the same note as all the college tours I had that week, Iyer and I talked about attending a liberal arts college versus a music conservatory — as you might have seen in one of my previous posts, one of the highlights of my college tours was my trip to Columbia University, where I got a better look at opportunities in both the fields of jazz and journalism. Iyer received his B. S. in Math and Science from Yale College and a Masters in Physics and an interdisciplinary Ph.D. in Technology and the Arts from UC Berkeley along with his studies in jazz at both schools, so I got to get his perspective on the issue of higher jazz education. He expressed that liberal arts schools give musicians an opportunity to experience a breadth of topics along with jazz, preparing the musician for interaction with the outside world.
If you’re in the Los Angeles area, come check out Vijay Iyer at the Levitt Pavilion in Pasadena on the 15th of August — I might see you there!
CURRENTLY LISTENING TO: The “Pretty” Road/Maria Schneider Orchestra/Sky Blue