Like his genre-bending music, pianist knows no borders

Boston Globe, June 26, 2005

If there is a jazz musician of the moment, Vijay Iyer may well be it.

The Indian-American pianist has gone in the past year from underground favorite to emerging mainstream sensation with a gripping, thought-provoking sound and a body of work that includes straight-ahead post-bop efforts, avant-garde collective improvisation, and collaborations with poets, rappers, and DJs.

Two acclaimed quartet recordings, 2003’s “Blood Sutra” and this year’s “Reimagining,” have burnished Iyer’s credentials among the jazz orthodox. And “In What Language?,” a genre-bending ensemble work written with hip-hop composer Mike Ladd, has proven a double success as a CD and an ambitious multimedia performance.

Yet the prolific Iyer, who brings his quartet to the Regattabar on Wednesday, never formally trained as a pianist. Born in 1971 and raised in Rochester, N.Y., by professional-class Indian immigrant parents, he studied classical violin and picked up piano on his own. But a music career wasn’t initially in the cards. By 22, Iyer already had a master’s degree from the University of California at Berkeley in physics.

A series of encounters in the fertile Bay Area jazz scene altered his course. The first was with the innovative saxophonist and composer Steve Coleman, a local fixture and leader of the M-Base collective, who recognized Iyer’s intellect and desire and took him under his wing.

“Steve really whipped me into shape,” Iyer recalls on the phone from his home in Manhattan. “He forced me to really look at my weaknesses. I got a lot more interested in rhythm from working with him. He really puts the drums in the center of the group; he composes for the drummer.”

As a Coleman acolyte, Iyer enjoyed the chance to play with and learn from numerous jazz luminaries when they came through the Bay Area.

Of no less importance was another Bay Area collective, Asian Improv, that grouped Asian-American jazz musicians and helped them perform and release their music. “Asian Improv really embraced me,” says Iyer. “They provided an example of how I could really progress as a creative artist in this medium.”

The group’s leader, Francis Wong, played tenor saxophone on Iyer’s first record, “Memorophilia,” recorded in 1995.

That year, Iyer made perhaps the most crucial connection of all in alto saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa, another Indian-American artist in whom he recognized a kind of soul brother. They would go on to become constant collaborators.

“It was instantly clear that we were in this together,” Iyer says. “Here we were, two people of South Indian descent trying to find our way in the universe of creative music. It was a perfect connection.”

That term, “creative music,” is a clue to what Iyer wants to achieve. It’s jazz code for a big-tent vision that’s as serious about traditional forms as it is aggressive in seeking out change.

It takes Iyer just a few bars to demolish the false distinction between “cerebral” and “emotional” music. His approach is both at once. It has a rigorous, geometric quality, the sort of searching tone that induces both melancholy and insight, and moments of rapture that are nothing short of spine-tingling. The key to all three effects is rhythm, which Iyer establishes by means of vamps and cyclical forms, rolling the keys like waves in a steady wind. It’s a music of momentum, always lurching forward even in its quietest phases.

Like his predecessors in the “percussive” school of jazz piano Thelonious Monk, Andrew Hill, Randy Weston, Muhal Richard Abrams, Cecil Taylor, all of whom he cites as influences Iyer has taken on the challenge of generating rhythm and phrase, structure and form. It means that he rarely lays out, nor does he take many conventional solos, when playing in a group. But he can also use rhythm and repetition to produce dense, haunting atmospherics working at his piano alone.

The current quartet gathers Iyer, Mahanthappa, bassist Stephan Crump, and the remarkable 18-year-old drummer Marcus Gilmore, a grandson of venerable Boston drummer Roy Haynes. As Iyer’s roiling sound propels Mahanthappa’s saxophone over the turbulence, his soaring melodic style redolent of John Coltrane, the two display the sort of intuitive connection that produces great improvised music.

That intensity of feeling between two Indian-American artists raises the question of just what is Indian about their music. After all, jazz and Indian music have a history of creative encounters, from the raga-inspired later work of Coltrane and some of his disciples to the guitar-meets-tabla stylings of John McLaughlin’s Shakti projects.

The emergence of Desi (as Indian-Americans call themselves) performers within the mainstream jazz tradition, however, is new.

But Amardeep Singh, a cultural critic at Lehigh University, says that the success of Iyer and Mahanthappa is sparking a new interest in jazz among Indian-Americans.

“That said, it’s a mistake to think of Iyer as somehow doing Indian jazz, just because of his background. The inflections from the Indian classical tradition in Iyer’s work are very subtle; it’s entirely possible to listen to the music without knowing about it.”

At the same time, Mahanthappa’s album “Mother Tongue” consists of interpolations of answers to the nonsense question “Do you speak Indian?” in seven of India’s principal languages.

But, Iyer says, “The relationship to Indian culture isn’t always one of valorization or ethnic pride. It’s complicated. That’s a healthier way to imagine heritage, tradition, or to reimagine your identity.”

Iyer is using jazz the American music par excellence to reimagine his American identity.

“I grew up playing with `Star Wars’ figures, eating masala dosas, and playing Rachmaninoff on the violin,” he says. “And I was also this big Prince fan. So what does that make me? I’m always trying to complicate the picture. And to say that it’s OK to be at home in that world, in that complex hybrid space that we all inhabit.”