Vijay Iyer ’92 doesn’t fit the pedigree of your typical jazz pianist. He holds a B.S. in Mathematics and Physics from Yale, an interdisciplinary Ph.D. in Technology and the Arts from the University of California Berkeley and has never received formal training in piano. So naturally, he just released his fourteenth studio album — his first solo effort — and was named 2010 Musician of the Year by the Jazz Journalists Association. Go figure. He spoke to WEEKEND via telephone Friday, while preparing for a show at Le Poisson Rouge in New York City.
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Q. You just came out with a new album, “Solo.” Things must be very exciting right now.
A. I’m kind of used to the cycle of things. I’ve been putting out almost an album a year for fifteen years now. It is exciting and it’s rewarding to hear people’s responses, whether they’re good or bad — just the fact that anyone’s paying attention. It’s also part of the machinery of staying in the game. You put things out, people respond, you go on tour. It’s a pattern that I’m used to.
Q. Is there a reason why you’re only coming out with a solo album now?
A. Well, I’ve always had these ensemble projects, so those were usually a priority. Part of it is also that I’ve always had a certain humility as a pianist. I’ve never seen myself as a technical virtuoso. Previously, I was a little reluctant to showcase my piano playing all by itself. I guess you could say I was shy. What broke the ice was that the label I’m signed to invited me to make a solo album, and I thought, “Well, why not? I have nothing to hide and no reason to keep putting it off.” It was nice that someone invited me to do it, because that just lit a fire under my ass.
Q. You started off your life in music playing violin. Is there a reason why the piano has been your vehicle for experimentation and success?
A. I had violin lessons that were very ordered and regimented. I learned the Western classical repertoire. I never learned to improvise on the violin — that was never part of the pedagogy. With piano, it was the complete opposite in the sense that I had no training — at least no formal training in my youth — and I almost learned by improvising. I learned by banging on it and figuring things out, which is really how we learn how to do most things. It’s how we learn to walk and how we learn to talk. You’re immersed in an environment that gives you cues, but you’re also sort of stumbling around and figuring things out.
Q. Do you think there’s a connection between your aptitude for the sciences and your music?
A. Regarding the mode of thought that’s involved in doing either [science or creative work], there’s not that much of a difference. When you’re composing, you’re working with your intuition, but you’re also working with logic, structure and detail. In a way, it’s like engineering. What I found when I was doing physics is that there’s an aesthetic to physics, especially theoretical work. You tend to prefer solutions that are not just correct, but elegant. That’s a sort of additional requirement, a tendency toward simplicity and elegance and clarity — and that resonates with an artistic sensibility. I think about the physics of sound and I’ve written on the cognitive science of music. It’s interesting to think about the aesthetics of the physical sciences or whether or not there’s a cultural sensibility that comes with doing science that you can learn something from, or that you can speak about in artistic terms. I think that’s a compelling line of thought to pursue.
Q. To me, jazz seems to be much more explicitly about reference and historical reaction than other genres of music. In your compositions, you work within and outside of the boundaries of jazz — you’ve performed versions of M.I.A. and Michael Jackson songs. How do you view that process of response and original innovation?
A. You mentioned Michael Jackson and M.I.A. I’m doing those things, but I’m also doing songs by the jazz masters — people who were the architects of the genre, if there is such a thing. I’m doing Ellington’s music and Thelonius Monk. They’re all part of one continuum, really, and this is what’s always been done. It’s part of the history of music, engaging with what’s around you and reacting to it and transforming it.
Even when Coltrane did “My Favorite Things,” that was a new thing. When he did that, [“The Sound of Music”] had only been out for about a year — and Coltrane’s take has become one of the most important jazz recordings of all time. It’s not like he dusted off some old chestnut, it’s just something that he turned into his own language. And of course, I’m not the first to cover “Human Nature” — the first was Miles Davis. There’s always been a composerly component to how jazz progresses; a balance in the way people use the same kinds of ideas in arranging and covering preexisting material. That’s what I do, try to strike a balance, and in the past couple of years, that balance has struck a half and half. I used to perform mostly my own music, but now I’m revisiting other stuff as well and just sort of rounding it out.
Q. I’ve heard you talk in previous interviews about extramusical space in a performance. How do you view the relationship between your music and the environment in which it exists?
A. Any good performer takes into account the situation. The acoustics of the room, for example: If you’re in a 2,000-foot auditorium, you want to reach the people in the back. Then you want to think about the best way to do that, and that doesn’t always mean playing loud. It’s playing with clarity and focus and intensity. I also think about connecting with the people who are sharing the experience with me. It’s not as if the music exists and I present it, and people have to deal with it. There’s a subtle co-performance that audiences engage in, in terms of how they respond, and that shapes what happens next. Usually when I play a concert, with my trio or by myself, I don’t really plan what we’re going to do before we go onstage. Andrew Hill, one of my heroes, once said that he’d just go out onstage and look at the audience and he’d know what to play. It would come to him based on his assessment, and I believe in that kind of process. It’s not like, “That guy has red hair, so I should play that.” It’s on a much more instinctive level — and it’s only something that comes with experience.
Q. Do you find it difficult to reconcile playful experimentation with accessibility in your music?
A. I guess accessibility is in the ear of the beholder. I prioritize making music that I like, music that I think sounds good or feels good. Or both, ideally. And for whatever reason, people have found some of the stuff I’ve done to be impenetrable. It has to do a lot with what people are used to hearing. If you’re used to hearing Beethoven, then Brahms doesn’t feel like much of a stretch. Or if you listen to Coltrane from 1965 and then you listen to Coltrane from 1967, yeah, there’s a stretch there, but there’s a connection. Then again, if you listen to Red Garland and then Coltrane from 1967 [laughs], that’s a whole different story. I will say that the work in music cognition I’ve done gave me a sense of how music works and what it does to a listener and how we experience it. I grew up listening to pop music. That’s who I am, and I’m not ashamed of it.