By Hans Morgenstern
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"I suppose when I look at the list of songs I've covered, it's a list of songs that inspired me," Iyer says. "If they seem to be coming nominally from a different place, somehow something they did was important to me. These are portable ideas. I have no use for the notion of genre because that enforces notions of difference among communities. I think about communities themselves as the source of music. What are the priorities of these communities and what are the aesthetic standpoints from which they're starting, and what are the parameters of expression? What is music for, and why are they doing it? And that's where the idea of genre comes from, from the particularities of a community."
He continues, "I find that in the piano trio, when working with something outside of that format, part of what's interesting is the stretch that we have to undergo as an ensemble and as individual players to speak to that, to try to touch that other sound. It's sort of about looking at the boundary between what's you and what's not you and seeing if you can somehow reach through it."
With his open-minded approach, Vijay Iyer is one of few jazz artists to effectively interact outside of the usual audience. He has done so by collaborating with fellow South Indian musicians on the Carnatic-inspired album Tirtha, scoring a film for the acclaimed director Bill Morrison and playing with hip-hop artists such as Talib Kweli, David Banner, Dead Prez and Das Racist.
Working under his own name has also proven fruitful. Historicity was the most unanimously acclaimed jazz record of 2009; unless Bill Frisell is working on some Love Supreme-caliber masterpiece, Accelerando is likely to win this year's crown as well. The album has already landed Iyer's boyish face on the cover of the January/February issue of the Jazz Times.
He is thankful but cautious about his critical success. "I'm fortunate to have received positive press, but that does not necessarily reflect what non-industry people think," he says. "What it does do, for me, is that it enables me to play more. Reviews get seen by presenters who then think, 'This guy might be worth giving a gig to.' The only reason it matters to me is that it gets me on the ground connecting with audiences. I'm not doing that to become popular. I'm doing that because that's what music is for. I want the music to be in motion. I want it to do things for people. Otherwise, why bother?"