A week after I spoke with pianist Vijay Iyer, his 2009 record Historicity was nominated for a Grammy in the "Best Instrumental Jazz Album" category. In recent years the accolades for his playing have been piling up -- topping many critics' polls and year-end "best of" lists.
And rightfully so: Vijay is an immense talent. Sure, like many great jazz players you can hear the virtuosity in his ability. But what sets him apart is how much life you hear in his music. In this conversation we discuss hearing action, stories and history in music. And that's all over his latest record Solo. It's just Vijay and his piano, and what's communicated is a pensive, erratic and intense mind at work. You hear him digging through inner turmoil to find understanding, sympathy and beauty. You hear his Indian heritage, influences of growing up with American pop culture, and you hear his understanding and appreciation for jazz history and the dire circumstances it was created in. Yes, what you hear transcends melodies, chords and mathematics.
It was a thrill to discuss his latest record, the spiritual aspects of music and improvisation and the cultural relevancy of the jazz community today. He speaks as eloquently as he plays.
Congratulations on your latest record, Solo. You've lived with it for some time -- how are feeling about it now that it's been out for a few months?
What's been happening for me is that I've been playing a lot of concerts where I've had more of a chance to push the material further than it's been documented. In a way, when you have a document, it's something that you can think past and push beyond. That's one way I've always looked at recordings: that it's a way to put a part of yourself to rest so you can move on [laughs]. It's like you have unfinished business with these pieces of music and there's something therapeutic to making the album and putting it out to the world -- that's kind of a milestone so you can think about what comes after it. So, I'm trying to push my own repertoire and my own playing that much further, especially because I've had so many more opportunities to play concerts this year for people. Basically, since Historicity came out, I've been touring a whole lot and continuing to do so throughout next year. That's a nice opportunity and privilege to push myself as a player that much more.
What's surprising you about playing this material live?
I'm taking more risks with it and feel empowered to do that. There's a version of it that exists that's fairly stable that someone can revisit if they want, but now I don't have to do that -- now, I can do something else with it. It makes me want to transform it and try new things with it. For example, taking some of the Solo material and playing it with the trio. We've arrived at a related, but a very different arrangement of "Human Nature" that has its own dimensions to it that are kind of hinted at on the Solo record. Playing live with people in the same room as you is just a different experience than setting down a document of a studio performance because it's so much more about connecting in real time with the people around. I might be impelled to push my playing or push the structure of the music in a way that's more disruptive or more active or just sort of has more of a gravity to it, so that it really becomes an event in the course of a performance rather than just another song on an album. That sort of hints at what the differences are of playing live… it's hard to explain [laughs]. You have to be there.
Did you have a breakthrough when you were younger to get to that point with an audience where you felt less inhibited and free to take more risks to take it a step further?
When I was in the Bay Area in the '90s I had a couple of working groups. One of them was a trio that in some respects is not that different, at least structurally speaking, than what you hear the trio on Historicity doing -- although hopefully much more accomplished now than back then when I was just a "noob" as they say [laughter]. We spent a lot of time sitting with music -- we'd rehearse for hours on end. And we were given a lot of opportunities to perform on our own terms. We could stretch out and I could play a 3-hour concert of all original music for people who didn't know anything about me [laughs]. So, those early years from 1992-1995 was when I was really experimenting with this trio concept and was able to marinate a lot of ideas. But also I remember playing in a lot of oppositional settings, like restaurant gigs or something. It was noisy or maybe people didn't want to hear what I wanted to do. Maybe they wanted something that would help the food go down easy or something [laughs]. I remember getting heckled one time because what we were doing had an extreme element to it that was repetition until it became like a trance. But in a way, that became a galvanizing moment for me. This is that crossroads. That classic "Lady or the Tiger?" moment -- is my life going to be about doing what I'm supposed to do, or is it about doing what I need to do instead. Moments like that can jolt you into this new sense of conviction about what you're doing.
You mentioned repetition and going into a trance while playing. When you're in that intense state of improvisational bliss and riding that momentum, where do you go when that's happening?
[Laughs] You know, I think the question contains the answer. You're asking where do You go or you could ask where did I go. And of course, you know that physically you were there the whole time, and mentally, some aspect of you was there too because something was guiding the action of the moment. But this sense of the "I" meaning the self is what seems to dissolve or transform or expand beyond that mind/body self. There emerges this other sense that actually I am both of those things and that I am observing both of those things, which means I am a third thing, which means I'm also something that is aware of all three of those things, which means that I am actually not I [laughs]. The notion of self as a unity is what dissolves and you kind of are put in contact with the fragility of that construct. Because it's actually kind of a fiction: the myth of the unity of self. Sometimes you're brought to the threshold of that, where you see that this is a convenient illusion that our bodies and minds conjure up so we don't go fucking crazy [laughter]. But actually, you know, what is really happening in our minds and bodies is really much larger than any of that. And it's also something that we all have in common, so it's also much larger than any of us.
I'm not trying to be too mystical here, because actually it's just a simple truth about consciousness, which music helps us access. And I think that's true because music is one of the oldest things we have in terms of human culture. It's probably older than language, and it connects us on a very basic level.
Is there anything else in your life that gets you to a higher level of consciousness like music does?
Sleep deprivation maybe… lots of that [laughs]. I don't know. I guess if you're asking if I subscribe to any spiritual disciplines -- not particularly. I find that music is all of that. It does the work that yoga or meditation does, because it is a form of both of those things. In a way, having that in my life is a blessing because it gives me access to those things.
What about the discipline behind that? I imagine a lot of that access comes through discipline and the lifelong study of improvisation. I've talked with a lot of musicians that use improvisation synonymously with life -- it's a continuous search where you're always finding new meaning, and at the end of the day a lot of times you have more questions than answers. Where do you feel like you're at with it?
There's a constant cycle of knowing and not knowing. You reach a level of mastery, or not mastery, but competence. No… some word between mastery and competence… [laughs] Maybe expertise? You get to a point where you feel like you have something to offer, something you've worked on, it's part of you and you can present it in context. Often as you go through the work of presenting it, you start to bump up against the limitations of what you prepared. And then you start to put those limitations and those frontiers of what you can do under the microscope. And you try to see what that is -- what is the limit and why is there such a limit? Can I push past it? Is it my own hang up? Or is it some hard, physical impossibility? So, there are those kinds of questions.
But then there's also the desire to make it new. If you have a certain repertoire that you're working with and you get a bunch of gigs and you play them night after night, you think, "well, this is supposed to be improvised music, but some part of me is not improvising because I already know what's going to happen." [laughs] And it depends on your disposition because some people like the security of knowing, OK, this is the head, here's the solo, back to the head, we end, people applaud, we play the next tune, here's the set list. And I actually like to keep with extending the same material, to see if we can push it farther every night or re-contextualize so it feels like a discovery again. Because that's the sound I'm after -- the sound of discovery. As much as I can, I build that into the process. That's the biggest reward.
Are you finding that's happening more frequently?
Well, I prioritize it. For example, when we tour with the trio, I make a point to not plan a set list until we're onstage. We have quite a repertoire, so it's not like we're just going out on a limb exactly, but I do try to work with the energy of the moment and sculpt the concert as much as I can. Working with some better possibilities and mixing them in real time, like DJ-ing with possibilities [laughs]. That keeps it alive for me. I also keep introducing new material that's going to challenge us in new ways.