The Vijay Iyer Trio harnesses the power of the moment
The New York-based outfit revels in jazz freedom and the spirit of defiance
Pianist Vijay Iyer brings his 2010 CD, Solo, to a close with a song titled “One For Blount.” It’s Iyer’s homage to the interstellar overdrive of the almighty Sun Ra, aka Herman “Sonny” Blount. “Over the years, I have learned a lot by listening to his piano playing, orchestrating, his collectivist kind of framework, his insistence on imagining an alternate reality, and putting it forward into the world,” Iyer says. “Also, his insistent defiance as an artist of color is a huge inspiration to me.”
“One For Blount” oscillates between fugue-like symmetries: open-ended jazz freedom and ecstatic percussive rhythms. But despite such dissonant musical parts the song takes shape as a spiraling pillar of cosmic motions that twist and turn with a fiercely defiant spirit. A cascade of other influences — Thelonious Monk, McCoy Tyner, Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor, John and Alice Coltrane — meld into a powerful and shimmering statement of musical insurrection.
This bold sense of creative independence defines Iyer’s music. From performing with saxophone master Steve Coleman in the early ‘90s to his 2016 pairing with Civil Rights-era improv jazz innovator Wadada Leo Smith for A Cosmic Rhythm With Each Stroke, Iyer’s work transcends jazz and modern classical music’s traditions with a singularly personal vision.
For more than a decade, Iyer, a 2013 MacArthur Fellow, now 45 years old, has developed an affinity for working with a trio — piano, bass, and drums — to bring an otherworldly performance of live improvisation that flourishes around a complex set of musical structures.
Iyer is on the road with bass player Stephan Crump and drummer Tyshawn Sorey, delving into material they've honed since the turn of century with albums such as 2009’s Historicity and 2015’s Break Stuff (ECM).During each performance the group builds on variations of themes from throughout their repertoire. Touchstones are apparent for anyone who’s familiar with the recordings. Each night Iyer leads the trio with references to familiar songs. But within minutes a fluid and dynamic pace takes over, based on communication through sound, responding to the moment, and developing ideas as they come. “We have a lot of material to draw from, but we’re also trying to bring something new to the table, push it in a new way so that we all have to respond in the moment,” Iyer says, “not just settle into a routine.”The act is meant to channel energy from the audience’s reaction to the music. “It’s also meant as a sensory experience that’s transformative in some way,” Iyer says. “Something that carries us all to a new place.”
The thread that ties the music together is a strain of creative resistance that Iyer sees as connected to everything from dance hall and reggae music to punk and hip-hop. “I’m not sure if there would be punk rock if not for the influence of Ornette Coleman and the so-called free jazz movement of the ’60s,” Iyer says. “You can look at Coleman, Yoko Ono, Albert Ayler, Alan Ginsberg; all of these people are precursors to punk, and they all lived in the same space — New York of the 1960s.”
Punk, in this context, is an instinctual drive that emerges from authenticity, youth culture, and political resistance.
Iyer invokes his cohort and "teacher," Wadada Leo Smith: “He is from a time in this music that is pre-institutionalized,” he says. “Everything he did was DIY. Before there was a thing called zines he self-published his own items, and put out music on his own terms.”
As such, radicalism is engrained in the musical aesthetic, and in the whole circumstance of creation. “All of that is just as important in the political framework of where we are today, and there’s resistance showing up in all kinds of different spaces,” Iyer says. “The guys who punched alt right mouthpiece Richard Spencer in the head, they’re practicing Black Bloc movements, which emerged in the punk scene as a means to contain the neo-Nazi skinhead movement. Music is the circumstance from which those strategies were born.”
For Iyer these musical histories are deeply intertwined, and bound by a desire to help bring about positive change in the world. “The main power we have, ideally, is that people gather,” Iyer says. “It’s an important moment, when you have a few hundred or a few thousand people together, bonding through a shared experience. So what do you do with that energy? Artists can create the pre-condition for a movement, and the circumstances for a movement to arise. If you welcome it and cultivate it, it can have an impact. That’s why I continue to do it.”