This week’s Bohemian Arts Feature is on Vijay Iyer, the great jazz pianist who’s playing the Healdsburg Jazz Festival on June 10. Iyer and I spoke on the phone for about 45 minutes on a variety of subjects, from the challenges facing jazz as a whole to the phone conversations he used to have with Andrew Hill. Naturally, it couldn’t all fit into a 1,000-wd. piece, which is a shame considering Iyer’s very smart, articulate answers. Here are selections from our interview that didn’t make the print paper.
You’re playing the Healdsburg Jazz Festival on a bill with Roy Haynes. Have you ever shared a bill with Roy Haynes before?
Yeah, I know him pretty well because the usual drummer in my group is his grandson, Marcus Gilmore. So I’ve come to know the family pretty well, since I’ve been working with Marcus coming on nine years. There have been a couple of cases where we’re on the same bill or at the same festival. There was one really nice time a couple of years ago in Belgium, at this festival in Ghent. My trio played, and then it was a quartet with Chick Corea, Roy Haynes, Kenny Garrett and Christian McBride. They played right after us, and then we all ended up playing together in this crazy free-for-all jam session afterward. It was fun. Roy’s incredible, absolutely.
You lived for quite some time in Berkeley, which has such a rich jazz scene—Berkeley High is legendary for jazz, there’s great jazz record stores, and I’m assuming you went to the old Yoshi’s on College, probably?
I was there for both. I went to both Yoshi’s quite a lot, but I remember the old Yoshi’s very well. I used to go there starting in ’92, I was going there constantly. I heard everybody there. And I got to play in both places several times, too.
Do you think if you’d studied anywhere besides Berkeley, you’d have switched your career path from physics to jazz?
Being in the Bay Area at that particular time in my life, it was very fertile—a lot of inspirations, a lot of collaborations, a real nice sense of community. I was exposed to a lot of stuff. A lot of factors contributed to me leaving physics, but part of it was the discovery that I could actually be an artist. I mean, I had an artistic orientation, I was very serious about music all along, but I didn’t really know that the options were there for me to really do it. And I didn’t know if I was any good. So I didn’t know where I stood in the world, or anything. And I also had a lot of learning to do. My years in the Bay Area—92 to 98—it was a real crucible for me. I was exposed to constant stimuli from all these different communities, and I got to work with all kinds of musicians, and learn about a lot of different things. It all contributed to my growth as an artist.
It’s hard to say whether that could have happened anywhere else. I suppose it could have happened in New York, but it would have been a very different proposition, I think. You kind of need to be in a city with a scene. The three towns in the Bay Area that all have independent and connected scenes, they all nurtured me. I was living in Oakland initially, playing at jam sessions, and started playing with elder musicians living in Oakland. That was all a very tremendous growth process. One epiphany after another. And people were very nurturing, you know. A lot of warmth.
Does your original study of physics cast any shadows over your playing, or your composition?
Shadows? You mean does it get in the way?
Or even the opposite of that; does it aid you at all, do you draw on anything you learned in physics for your composition?
I just should clarify: What happened is I entered the Physics Pd.D. program in 1992, and around 1994 I started move more in the direction of becoming an artist, and found that I couldn’t really do both seriously enough. So then I was ready to leave academia, but what I ended up doing instead of completely abandoning academia, is I ended up doing a degree in music perception and cognition; my Ph.D. is in the science of music. So if you’re asking me does that have anything to do with my music, yes. Absolutely, it has everything to do with it. The two have fed each other all along. The research side and that approach to understanding how the musical mind works, and how the musical body works, what music does to us and for us and why we have it. How sound works, how rhythm works on the body—those are basic questions that everybody should be interested in, and certainly anybody who’d involved in the making of music. To have that kind of perspective on it that’s not purely intuitive but that has also some degree of scientific rigor to it, understanding what’s going on—that’s useful, and it helps me make choices as an artist. And yeah, it affects almost everything I do.
I guess the physics of sound are involved in all that, but you know, the work I was doing was in theoretical solid state physics, so I was doing quantum mechanics. That has nothing to do with music. It just doesn’t. It’s not the same thing. I guess it brought me to a point where I was comfortable with challenging material, but you know, Coltrane was comfortable with challenging material too.
I have to say also that working with Steve Coleman for the years that I did, that also was its own boot camp in a way. That was extremely rigorous, and dealing with mathematical forms and manipulating and permuting rhythmic quantities. And that was entirely separate from my education in physics. But it may be that he brought me on because he saw that aptitude in me. Maybe it’s the same aptitude on some level.
Speaking of music’s affect on the body, I want to ask about a track on your new record, the title track, Accelerando, which you’ve pointed out is constantly speeding up very incrementally. What has been the effect on audiences when you play that song?
The best example for me is when we premiered that piece, which was actually written for a choreographer. We were commissioned by SummerStage and we premiered it last summer in Central Park in NYC in front of thousands of people. These dancers learned the piece, and they created a dance that was very profoundly synchronized with it. That to me was an amazing validation of the concept, of the idea.
The beats themselves are irregular. And they’re irregular because they’re getting shorter. But it’s a looped acceleration. Basically what happens is you go from—and I’m just making up numbers here—you go from 100 BPM to 400 BPM over the course of four measures, so basically you accelerate to quadruple tempo in four measures, so by the time you get to that point, four beats are the same duration as one beat was at the beginning. But then you just sort of regroup it, and you look at 4 as the new one, so now the chunks are larger. So then you’re actually back right where you started. That’s what I mean by saying it’s a loop. You know that MC Escher staircase that seems to be constantly ascending but somehow is in the same place? It’s an illusion.
You’ve talked about how this album is reflective of movement, human movement. Live, obviously, there’s a lot of movement going on between you and Marcus and Stephan, but on the album is there any tonal imagery where you specifically said “This is going to sound like movement”?
Well, that’s what rhythm is. I mean, this is where my research side meets my artistic side.
From a neuroscience perspective, what rhythm is — and I’m saying this literally – rhythm is an imagined movement. In a sense that the parts of your brain that are involved in motor activities – like making the limbs move – those are the same parts that are involved in the process of rhythm perception. They light up in the same way like they do when you are moving as they do when you’re listening to rhythmic movement, or perceiving rhythmic action.
All music that has a sort of dance orientation, or a dance impulse, has this property. At some level, it is not just a representation, it is the trace of human action. And the way we respond to it is through some kind of active recognition of that, that we know it was made by a body doing something. And when I say “we know,” it’s actually much lower in the structure of the brain than what we call “knowledge.” It’s more like a resonance of some kind, or a reflex. It’s almost a reflex of empathy that we have, where we hear somebody do something or we see somebody do something and we imagine ourselves doing that thing too. The term they use nowadays is “mirror neurons.” Some sciences believe we’re neurally hard-wired to relate to the actions of others. And rhythm seems to be one way in which that works; that we perceive rhythm, and then perceive it as human action, and the way we perceive it as human action is imagining ourselves doing that action too.
But the thing about musical rhythm is that it’s actually a little bit ambiguous in terms of what exactly caused that sound. It could be any number of things. So there’s an element of fantasy involved in dance music. And that’s probably obvious at some level.
I was going to ask—what about rhythms that are created by drum machines, or 808s, or laptops? You’ve recorded songs by MIA and Flying Lotus, and the rhythms on those songs aren’t played by a live drummer.
But they’re meant to evoke the same thing. Which is why they’re in a specific range of tempo. That is, a human range of tempo. We’re not talking about 1000 BPM, or one BPM. We’re talking about stuff between 60-100 BPM and generally even closer to 90-150 most of the time. So that’s a very human range of tempo, and it’s a pretty narrow range, actually. And that has to do with how we walk and how we move our bodies. Thus, the kind of tempo at which we are able to do certain walking-like things. There are other time schedules with other kinds of human activity, let’s say with speech or breathing. But those are also human elements; we talk about music in those terms too. We just don’t talk about meter or pulse in those terms.
So yeah, a lot of electronic music that’s meant for dance is created in a way that’s meant to evoke human action and human drum music. And also involves, oftentimes, a sample of that. A sample of human drumming, for example.
I wanna talk about the previous trio record, Historicity, which topped a lot of critic’s lists. Were you surprised after years of making records at the near-unanimous acclaim that record got?
To be honest, I’ve gotten a lot of nice press before, and won awards and gotten on a lot of critic’s lists before. But like you said, it kind of happened at once. And it’s hard for me to understand why that happened. I have my theories, I guess.
I think for a long time, people saw my music as difficult or something. It was almost like news to people that I could play standards, or that I could play other people’s music. But also, the trio format has a different dynamic than some of the other formats I’ve recorded in. I did four quartet albums, and I did some other stuff with this band called Fieldwork, and with this poet named Mike Ladd. I’d never made a simple piano trio jazz album. Which basically, Historicity, conceptually speaking, was the classic format—a piano trio record, and we’re doing some covers and some originals. It’s like, how many of those came out in 2009? Probably thousands, just in 2009 alone.
But I think it was just people coming around to understand me as part of that continuum, and not as separate from it. ‘Cause I think, it was almost more like people respected me than liked me, but that was probably because the music I was making was all original, so it had that level of otherness that people had to work to get through.
And this, maybe because there are elements that are recognizable to people, like a Stevie Wonder song. Depending on what you’re into, like if you know West Side Story, then you know “Somewhere,” and if you’re a Blue Note crate digger, and if you know about all the obscure Blue Note stuff, then you know about Andrew Hill. If you know about the Creative Music movement then you know about Julius Hemphill. And if you know about 21st Century hip-hop and electronic music then you know about MIA. It spoke to all these different communities that know about these single things, but then also suggested that actually, it’s part of one thing. That was my take on it, at least. That maybe there’s a unity to be found here.
With the MIA song, the Flying Lotus song, the Michael Jackson song… there are a lot of questions to be asked about these choices, but what I want to know is, in your estimation, do musical genres even exist anymore?
My main understanding of genre is that genres don’t exist. They never did. Really. What happens is that a community settles on some set of artistic practices and aesthetics and priorities for what music is and how it works. And depending on how open or closed that community is, things kind of stabilize. So that’s then, after the fact, basically, called a genre. But what it really was was an emergent property of the music of a certain community.
So basically, let’s bring it back to the realm of people. It’s not a genre that exists without people doing it, it’s a genre that came out of the actions of people in a community. So then, when you think about what genre is today, you’re really thinking about what community is today. And how do communities intersect and interact and coexist, and maybe, how porous are they? Who’s policing them anymore? And certainly, when you live in a city like New York City, we’re all piled up on top of each other. So we end up moving right across multiple communities.
Especially if you’re an artist in NYC, it’s possible to live in a lot of different worlds simultaneously, and it’s not a big deal, actually. It’s kind of just part of your reality, and that’s sort of how it’s been for me. I’ve collaborated with people in all these different communities. I don’t even think of them as genres, it’s more about like, “Okay, who do these people align themselves with, and what are their kind of aesthetics that have emerged from this scene?” I guess another word for it is “scene.” But I also know people who move across a lot of scenes. And that’s part of what it is to live in a city, and certainly to live in the 21st century, where we’re all connected anyway. If you’re adhering to a genre, it means you’re maintaining a kind of collective fiction.
And then it’s not really about genre or style, it’s about people. And what information they’re carrying with them. And when you collaborate with them, what comes out of that collaboration, what are you building on.
I read a tribute to Andrew Hill that you wrote when he died, where you mentioned he used to call you the morning after seeing your shows to tell you exactly what he thought—in your words, “often to devastating effect.” What types of things was he telling you?
It was sort of about the choices I was making, and he’d ask me to defend them, basically! (Laughs.) It was a lot of different things. Sometimes it was about the company I was keeping. Sometimes it was about the places I was playing in. Sometimes it was about what I wore!
But other times it was about the music, quite a bit. Basically he cared about me, and he wanted me to be… he got me thinking about my choices, like about being judicious about how you move in the world, and the messages you’re sending out, symbolically. It was kind of about carrying oneself with dignity.
There’s a tendency often to kind of be slumming when you’re playing this music. And that just diminishes everybody, because it diminishes the nobility that’s at the core of the music. And it diminishes you, and your audience too. You know, you come to a city and you’re lean and hungry and you’re in your 20s and you feel like you just want to get out there on the ground running, making shit happen.
I was also just remembering some advice that George Lewis gave me before I moved to the city. The first thing he said was “Don’t take the first gig you get.” It was that same mentality with Andrew. It was like, look, why are you really here? What are your goals? Let’s work towards those goals. Don’t just play because someone’s letting you play. Don’t get giddy. Because you’re better than that.
The song, “Star of the Story,” on your record—I recognized it from the Tribe Called Quest song. Did you know it from the original Heatwave, or did you also know it from the Tribe Called Quest sample?
I knew the Tribe song, but I didn’t know it was a song. I mean, I didn’t know it came from somewhere else. And then I saw this blog post by Prince Paul, describing his favorite sample flips of all time, as he called it, and that was one of them. And I was like, whoah, what is this a sample of? I didn’t know, so I went and found it, and this was just a year or so ago, so I didn’t know the song before then. And then I found the original, and I just listened to it over and over. And I was kind of amazed by it. I knew of the band Heatwave, but I never knew that song.
It has all this mystery in it, it’s kind of haunting. And I remember that hook that Vinia Mojica sang on “Verses From the Abstract,” that was the Tribe song, and Ron Carter was playing bass on that track. But that hook that she was singing was also haunting—it was basically haunting in the same way. So I guess I like the shape of it, the way it just ends. It’s in but out at the same time. I wanted to just learn about it, so I transcribed it and started playing it. I was also dealing with this particular rhythmic idea that became the backbone for our version of it; someone described it as a Dilla beat. It kind of has that Dilla vibe, it has that lopsided, almost backwards-sounding element, like there’s something wrong with it, but it’s right too.
I wanna ask you one last question… jazz is a type of music that is perennially said to be suffering, or said to be dying. Do you see jazz suffering, financially, or creatively?
I mean, everyone’s suffering financially. It’s not unique to jazz. I think the thing is that it’s the most fragile. But look, it was always a niche music, it doesn’t make sense to think about trying to sell millions of records. I mean, it barely makes sense for a pop artist to think that way. Only a handful of them get to do that. Most albums don’t sell, at all. Most albums fail. Most bands fail. So the fact that we’re able to do it at all is a success.
The fact is that people are playing it all over the world. There are festivals and venues all over the world. The biggest problem is that America doesn’t value it enough, and it came from here. And that has to do with a lot of different dynamics, but basically racism is at the heart of it. It’s an art music that came from African-Americans. And it should be valued in the same way that classical music is valued, and the same way that ballet is valued, and the same way that visual art and theatre and dance are valued, but it isn’t. There’s not enough infrastructure or support for it in the U.S., and people think that the marketplace needs to support it. But the marketplace doesn’t support all those other things I just mentioned. They’re supported by foundations and patronage.
So that’s the dynamic we’re facing—we’re expected to be able to compete in the marketplace, which means competing with the Lady Gagas of the world. Which doesn’t make sense, because that’s not what we’re trying to do. But I’m interested in sustainability. I’m not interested in, like, becoming a millionaire or something. I guess a millionaire isn’t a big deal anymore—I’m not interested in becoming a billionaire, I should say. I’m more interested in creating work that has an impact, and being able to do that for a lifetime. Because most artists don’t do that, either.
You know, most pop artists don’t work for their whole lives. Either they have a hit record and get out of the game, or it’s the case of something like the Rolling Stones, like an example of the grotesque skeletons on display, the kind of bizarre geriatric exhibition. But for the most part, you don’t have these people trotted out in front of audiences until they’re 85, 90 years old. I mean, I love Roy Haynes, but he shouldn’t have to travel as much as he does. He’s musical royalty. He’s an American treasure. And it’s beautiful that he’s playing for us, but he should be able to rest, you know? He shouldn’t have to come out all the time. He should be able to stay home and play the Village Vanguard all month.
You know, there’s no safety net for people in this music, or for people in the arts in America. It’s just sort of a different scene here. And that’s partly what gives the music its cry, that sort of struggle that it contains. But it’s also a struggle, let’s face it. We romanticize it, but it’s not pretty.
So anyway, I don’t think jazz is dead. At all. I mean, there are thousands, if not tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of people playing it. I travel all over the world, and I play it for people, so from my perspective, it’s not dead at all. But there are a lot of musicians who are entering the game now, who have fewer opportunities. And so they might think it’s dead. I mean, I thought it was dead, 10-12 years ago. And it was on the stretcher for a while! But I think there’s a lot of creativity out here, there’s a lot of amazing musicians doing a lot of amazing stuff. And I’m glad I get to be a part of it.
Tags: Andrew Hill, Berkeley, Headlsburg Jazz Festival, Roy Haynes, Tribe Called Quest, Vijay Iyer