Vijay Iyer, A Man Without Boundaries

Ogata / ECM Records

Vijay Iyer, A Man Without Boundaries

Ogata / ECM Records

I’ve been listening to Vijay Iyer’s music for almost 20 years. We first met in 2006, when I was the editor of the world music magazine Global Rhythm and he had just released Raw Materials, an album of duos with saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa. They came up to the magazine’s offices and I interviewed them together. It was a very interesting conversation; what struck me the most was something Iyer said about cultural identity, that Asian-Americans “become the boundary by which American identity is defined… we are always the people who are on the either-or side of the American fence.”

Despite being 100% American, born in upstate New York to Indian immigrant parents, Iyer was often portrayed early in his career as an exotic novelty, for entirely superficial reasons. The genuinely interesting things about him — his degrees in math and physics, the fact that he was a self-taught pianist who’d shifted to the instrument after 15 years as a violinist — were often ignored. Instead, his name and skin color were what mattered.

What became interesting about him to me was the breadth of his vision. He signed with the German label ACT Music and released several pathbreaking albums including 2009’s Historicity, a collection of versions of songs ranging from Julius Hemphill’s “Dogon A.D.” to MIA’s “Galang”; 2012’s Accelerando, which paired originals with takes on Flying Lotus’s “MmmHmm” and Henry Threadgill’s “Little Pocket Size Demons”; and his first solo album. Then he moved to ECM, where he put out two duo albums (one with trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith and one with fellow pianist Craig Taborn), a trio disc, and Mutations, an album featuring a 10-movement work for piano, string quartet, and electronics. He did all this work and much more without ever seeming to acknowledge the boundaries he was crossing.

I continued paying attention to Iyer’s music, but we didn’t speak again for another decade. I interviewed him for the second time in May 2017, by which point he’d become a one-man institution. He’d received a MacArthur Fellowship, had been voted Jazz Artist of the Year in DownBeat‘s annual critics’ poll three times, and gotten a lifetime appointment to teach at Harvard. He was definitely on the inside of elite, institutional America, while remaining a hip namecheck. (He was pretty much the only living jazz artist guaranteed coverage on Pitchfork; they seemed to review every record he put out.)

A few months after that interview, in October 2017, we ran into each other at an Art Ensemble of Chicago performance, and I watched him play in a duo with Smith at ECM’s 50th anniversary concert at Jazz at Lincoln Center in November 2019.

In 2020, he formed a trio with drummer Tyshawn Sorey, with whom he’d been playing in various contexts for two decades, and bassist Linda May Han Oh. They played at New York’s Jazz Standard at the end of January, premiering music that would appear on the album Uneasy, released in April 2021. That was one of the last live shows I saw before the pandemic shut the world down.

Four years later, things have reopened slowly, and Iyer’s been, if anything, even more high profile than before. He joined vocalist Arooj Aftab and bassist Shahzad Ismaily for a trio album, Love In Exile, that was greeted with rapturous reviews from pretty much every corner of the music world, and now he’s released a second album with Oh and Sorey, Compassion. They launched that record with a week’s worth of shows at the Village Vanguard, and early in the run, I got on the phone with him again to talk about his new music, and much more.

Compassion features nine original pieces, plus versions of Stevie Wonder’s “Overjoyed,” Roscoe Mitchell’s “Nonaah,” and a medley of John Stubblefield’s “Free Spirits” and Geri Allen’s “Drummer’s Song.” But almost all the music Iyer brought into the session was originally written for something else — a live performance at the Celebrate Brooklyn festival dedicated to those lost in the pandemic; a tribute to Iyer’s father, who died in 2021; Ghosts Everywhere I Go, a work for septet inspired by poet Eve L. Ewing’s writing. Iyer told me that this isn’t atypical for him, that he prefers to adapt music for his trios than to write for them.

“That was even the case on like, [2015’s] Break Stuff… a lot of that music had been written for a large ensemble. And so then what we ended up doing were kind of like dub versions of those.”

“Prelude: Orison,” which comes from For My Father, starts out solo, but then becomes a piano-bass duet with minimal adornment from Sorey; the interaction with Oh is so intimate, it’s like Iyer is leaning on her shoulder. “That had been this — I don’t know, writing that piece was kind of unique, like it was a new experience for me… it felt like I just sort of went into a trance and started and made that piece. And then, after kind of sitting with it, I realized it was for my father.”

He explained, “I think it’s partly because writing for trio is kind of strange. It’s a little hard to create a sense of distinction between what’s written and what isn’t, to the point where it’s, because we’re all playing the same way, we’re playing the whole time, all three of us. If it were a quartet with somebody else, then there’d maybe be some unison figures that would signal this is the part that’s composed, or this is charted out… I guess I find that writing for trio is strange because it doesn’t always provide those obvious anchors. You’re just in the same space the whole time in trio music. So that’s sort of the puzzle for me.”

Still, he says, “if I repurpose other music, then we’ll all hear it in a new way. It’ll take on a different life in the context of this group.” And given that almost all the music was written within the year prior to the recording session (which took place at Oktaven Audio in Mount Vernon, New York in May 2022), “it all felt like it was part of the same swirl of activity, I guess I’d put it that way.”

The outside compositions all have deep significance; they’re more than just tunes Iyer likes. He and Roscoe Mitchell have a relationship that goes back many years; he played in Mitchell’s band the Note Factory in the early 2000s, taking a spot formerly held by Matthew Shipp.

“Nonaah” is Mitchell’s signature composition, a piece built around a horn line full of wild leaps that he’s recorded in multiple contexts over 50 years, playing it solo, with the Art Ensemble of Chicago, with orchestras and more. Iyer said his version is modeled on a previous studio recording: “the version on Fanfare For The Warriors, the Art Ensemble with [pianist] Muhal [Richard Abrams] from the early-mid ’70s…It is about bringing out these extremes, these registral and intervallic extremes. And it still is a challenge. We’ve been trying to just drop it in every now and then in sets and it’s always, Wait, I thought I knew how it went. It’s such a disorienting line… It feels like it’s all over the place.”

The version of Stevie Wonder’s “Overjoyed” is a tribute to Chick Corea, who died in February 2021; Iyer was given Corea’s piano, and the song was the last thing the late pianist played in public, on a livestream. Iyer delivers the song not as a funereal ballad, but as a romping celebration of life. Similarly, the high-energy take on John Stubblefield’s “Free Spirits” that ends the album is influenced by the version Mary Lou Williams recorded on her 1976 album of the same name, and interpolates a fragment of Geri Allen’s “Drummer’s Song,” which the trio first recorded on Uneasy.

Compassion comes at a moment of great visibility for Iyer, thanks to the critical and popular success of Love In Exile. He began collaborating with Arooj Aftab and Shahzad Ismaily in 2018, performing live when their schedules permitted. The album, a collection of dreamlike improvisations, was recorded in 2019, but not released until last year. “We always knew that the project was special,” Iyer says, “and I have to hand it to Arooj; she really has that vision, she sees a place for her work in the world… she’s been so clear in her head about what she wants to do and how to do it, and it’s just been remarkable.”

He sees the album as occupying a unique spot “between my kind of status in the jazz universe and hers in whatever you’d call it, alternative global pop something or other… I think it was just a way to move across different scenes kind of smoothly.” But it’s not the kind of record that can really be marketed; it had to connect with people on its own. Which it did; as he says, “the music itself did the work for us. Like, it really speaks to people in a way that was so validating. Because it spoke to us, or else we wouldn’t have done it. But, you know, we played in all kinds of different contexts — cathedrals, rock clubs, outdoor festivals, really every type of place. And because the music is so malleable, we were able to kind of rise to every space that we were in somehow.”

While his “status in the jazz universe” seems to grow year by year, Iyer maintains a parallel career as a classical composer that sometimes goes unnoticed by those same fans and journalists. “It’s actually about half of my musical life at this point, or maybe more,” he says. “I wrote a cello concerto that premiered in London in fall of ’22, and also it was played around the US in the early part of ’23. Last fall my piano concerto was premiered, but I didn’t play it. It was written for a classical pianist and a string orchestra. So that premiered in October, November.

“And I’ve written stuff for soloists like Matt Haimovitz. The piano piece I mentioned called For My Father was recorded by Sarah Rothenberg,” he continued. “She hasn’t released it yet, but it’ll be out probably this year. A piece that I wrote for Imani Winds called Bruits was the title piece from their Grammy-nominated album that came out in ’22. I’ve written a bunch of things for Jennifer Koh, a violin concerto for her, and different things. So there’s a lot, once you add it up. A piece for So Percussion that they played hundreds of times. And actually, I just did a new piece with them that we premiered at Carnegie Hall in December, that I played with them. It was myself and the trumpet player Milena Casado and then the four of them. So yeah, that’s ongoing. I have some more chamber pieces I’m working on this spring and some orchestral stuff down the line.”

Writing something for someone other than yourself to perform, adhering strictly to a score — especially if it’s going to premiere onstage but maybe not be recorded for years, if at all — must be a very different feeling from playing jazz, which involves the assertion of individual identity through spontaneous creation. I wondered whether it offered Iyer a different type of satisfaction.

“I mean, often what that means is that, like, a few thousand people hear it all at once or something like that, you know?” he responded. “So then it still has its own impact in the world. That’s maybe similar in scale to putting out a jazz record or something… it’s a different kind of work, I would say. You know, because you’re trying to sculpt something before it happens. And most of what I do musically as a player involves me sculpting it as it happens. But then often, I think, the most rewarding part of it for me is working with musicians on their performance, on their interpretation, helping them hear the music in it, helping them make sense of it and helping them, you know, stay together and kind of get beyond the page with it. That’s always the most rewarding part for me. And then the thing is, it exists so someone else can play it. That’s the thing that people tend to forget, you know, they think it’s just sort of cast into the void afterward, but it can actually be brought back and often is.”

On February 25, Iyer will be performing at the Jazz Gallery with saxophonist Henry Threadgill and percussionist Dafnis Prieto; the two sets will be streamed online. Visit their website for details.



John Blum / David Murray / Chad Taylor - "Fire In The Branches"

John Blum is a very heavy, hard-hitting pianist who’s often compared to Cecil Taylor for the aggressiveness of his attack, but speaking as someone who’s got a book, In The Brewing Luminous: The Life & Music Of Cecil Taylor, coming out later this year, I don’t hear it. Blum’s playing lacks Taylor’s almost inhuman precision, and his leaps around the keyboard aren’t nearly as wide or acrobatic. I’d slot him instead alongside other, equally worthwhile free jazz pianists like Dave Burrell, Bobby Few, or Don Pullen. Anyway, he’s joined on this album by two other serious players, saxophonist David Murray and drummer Chad Taylor. Murray can go as far out as anybody, but like Archie Shepp, he’s a traditionalist at heart — he loves gospel, ballads and the blues — and Taylor is a fascinating percussionist as interested in African grooves as swing. Together, they create music that’s improvised but feels collectively thought-out. (From The Recursive Tree, out now via Relative Pitch.)


Vinnie Sperrazza Apocryphal - "Caffeine Dream"

Drummer and newsletter writer Vinnie Sperrazza has been leading the quartet Apocryphal, with saxophonist Loren Stillman, guitarist Brandon Seabrook, and bassist Eivind Opsvik, for a decade. Their self-titled debut came out in 2014, followed by Hide Ye Idols in 2017. In 2020, Sperrazza dropped an iPhone recording of a live gig from 2015 on Bandcamp, but this is the third “official” Apocryphal release. Their music is jazz-rock in the sense that it gives lots of space to electric guitar, and Sperrazza’s drumming has more backbeat than swing, but, you know, drummers Fred Below and Ebbie Hardy, along with bassist Willie Dixon, kept Chuck Berry’s records swinging pretty hard. Sunday is a concept album of sorts, tracing a person’s journey through a typical Sunday from morning to evening. “Caffeine Dream” is a slowly evolving ballad that feels, to me, like coffee slowly circulating through your body and bringing you to life. (From Sunday, out now via LoyalLabel.)


Jonas Cambien - "Once Low Now High"

Jonas Cambien is a Belgian pianist and composer living in Norway. This album marks the debut of a new band with Danish alto saxophonist Signe Emmeluth and two Norwegians: bassist Ingebrigt Håker Flaten and drummer Andreas Wildhagen. On two tracks, including this one, they’re joined by Norwegian trombonist Guro Kvåle. A lot of the music on this album feels very carefully composed, with tight unison playing and strict rhythm. Here, the horns are playing little melodic cells that blur the line between minimalist classical and the kind of progressive rock that draws influence from medieval music, but there’s some avant-garde popping and hissing going on, too, and Cambien plays electronic keyboards as well as piano. A side note: the label, Clean Feed Records from Portugal, has been putting out incredible music for over 20 years, but they say they may pack it in this year. That would be a real tragedy; I can’t think of another label that would release a record like this. (From Maca Conu, out now via Clean Feed.)


Emmeluth’s Amoeba - "Chic Blip"

Saxophonist Signe Emmeluth, featured on the Jonas Cambien record above, also has her own band, Emmeluth’s Amoeba, with guitarist Karl Bjorå, pianist Christian Balvig, and drummer Ole Mofjell. Nonsense is their third album, and they’ve developed a unique collective voice. Emmeluth is a fierce and focused saxophonist — she doesn’t go in for free jazz screaming, often emitting just one sharp note at a time or sticking to a melody that’s like a pattern of knots tied in a string. Bjorå, whose barbed-wire sound reminds me of Marc Ribot, follows her closely on the album’s opening track, ‘Chic Blip,” which has a lurching quality as though the musicians are being handed scraps of paper with bits of the melody written on it just in time to play them. The first big solo goes to Balvig, and he’s dive-bombing all over the keyboard as Mofjell seems to take a simultaneous solo behind him. (From Nonsense, out now via Moserobie.)


Joel Ross - "nublues"

Vibraphonist Joel Ross has become one of the key players on his instrument very quickly. In addition to making four albums on his own (including this one), he’s played on records by Makaya McCraven, Kassa Overall, Melissa Aldana, Rob Mazurek’s Exploding Star Orchestra, and more. This album arises out of an urge to explore ballads and blues, and in so doing find his way to the heart of jazz, to move it forward by examining its past and its roots. Ross is joined by alto saxophonist Immanuel Wilkins, pianist Jeremy Corren, bassist Kanoa Mendenhall, and drummer Jeremy Dutton. He kicks off the album’s title track solo, releasing shimmering, reverberant notes in little triplets before breaking out into bluesy adornments warped by reverb. It’s not until nearly three minutes into the eight-minute piece that the rest of the band comes in, at which point things get truly deep. (From nublues, out now via Blue Note.)


Lawrence Fields - "Parachute"

Pianist Lawrence Fields was a member of Chief Adjuah’s band from 2012 to about 2020. He’s also played with Joe Lovano and Dave Douglas’s band Sound Prints, and now he’s making his debut as a leader, with bassist Yasushi Nakamura and drummer Corey Fonville. Fields’ style is old school but forward-looking; his playing on the album opener, “Parachute,” reminds me of the late Chick Corea in the way he blends ornateness and almost classical flourishes with a forceful sense of swing. He anchors his extrapolations with a regular, pulsing boom from the keyboard’s low end like punctuating sentences, and Fonville is the perfect foil, dancing lightly one moment, then delivering an almost rock-like roll of thunder the next, as Nakamura bounces between them. I’m not easily won over by piano trios — I often find myself wishing a horn player would step up. Not this time. Lawrence Fields has the stuff. (From To The Surface, out now via Rhythm ‘n’ Flow.)


Otis Sandsjö - "CLICKS 2023"

This is the third album by Swedish saxophonist Otis Sandsjö, though he and his producing partner, bassist Petter Eldh, also work together in Eldh’s group Koma Saxo, which has made three studio albums and a live album. So these two have an extensive creative history together; they speak each other’s language. There are a lot of instruments heard on this record — various saxophones, synths, drums both real and programmed, sampled harps and bells, flute, trombone, and more — but they’re all chopped up, filtered, laid to grids and then yanked out of place again to create posthuman collages of sound. The result will absolutely appeal to fans of recent work by Sam Gendel and Terrace Martin, or of Blake Mills and Pino Palladino’s Notes With Attachments, though it’s even more abstract and squiggly than those references might indicate. “CLICKS 2023” sounds like it’s falling apart and struggling to reconstitute itself as it goes. (From Y-Otis Tre, out now via We Jazz.)


Timo Lassy / Jukka Eskola - "Cross-Atlantic Connection"

In January 2022, two Finnish musicians — saxophonist Timo Lassy and trumpeter Jukka Eskola — traveled to New Orleans for a session with a bunch of killer local players, including drummer Herlin Riley (who’s played with Wynton Marsalis and Ahmad Jamal), trombonist Delfeayo Marsalis, keyboardist David Torkanowsky, bassist Roland Guerin, sousaphone player Kirk Joseph, and tuba player Matt Perrine. Together, they create some extraordinary shuffling grooves, exactly as you’d expect from a crew like this. Riley kicks off “Cross-Atlantic Connection” with a sharp, intricate but perfectly loose beat, with Torkanowsky and Guerin swooping in around him with some incredible space-funk as Lassy and Eskola play unison horn lines and Abdissa Assefa adds percussion. Eventually, Lassy dives into a solo that feels almost dubbed-out, especially when Torkanowsky is laying down distorted Wurlitzer organ behind him. Eskola is slicker, playing in an almost smooth jazz/R&B style, but the band never lets up. (From Nordic Stew, out now via Dox.)


Sullivan Fortner - "Snakes And Ladders"

This isn’t pianist Sullivan Fortner’s solo debut; he made two albums for Impulse! in 2014 and 2018. But he’s been best known as a sideman, working with saxophonist Melissa Aldana, drummer/producer Kassa Overall, trumpeter Theo Croker and most notably vocalist Cécile McLorin Salvant. Now he’s stepping out on his own once again, and doing so in a much more vivid fashion than before. Solo Game is a two-disc set. The first disc consists of 100% acoustic, first-take versions of jazz standards and pop tunes like “I Didn’t Know What Time It Was” and Stevie Wonder’s “Don’t You Worry ‘Bout A Thing.” The second disc, though, is a collection of original material, on which he brings in Fender Rhodes, synthesizers, programmed beats and electronic effects, even singing through a vocoder at times. On “Snakes And Ladders,” the piano drips with echo as wind-chime-like percussion surrounds him like a cloud. (From Solo Game, out now via Artwork.)


James Brandon Lewis Quartet - "Swerve"

Fair warning; James Brandon Lewis is going to be appearing in this column a lot the next few months. He’s got another killer album coming out in March, and at least one notable guest appearance on a record in April. And all of these records are very different from each other, just as the two albums he put out last year, Eye Of I and To Mahalia, With Love, were completely different from each other. Despite the fact that he only plays the tenor saxophone, Lewis changes his approach to suit the circumstance. Sometimes he’s a hard-riffing beast; sometimes he’s an introspective balladeer; sometimes he locks in with the drummer for deep duo explorations; sometimes he ascends into gospelized ecstasy.

This quartet is one of his longest-running ensembles. He’s been working with pianist Aruán Ortiz, bassist Brad Jones, and drummer Chad Taylor for three albums now, plus an intense double live disc. (He’s also made two duo albums with Taylor, but those should be considered separately in my opinion.) Their music has a gravitas and meditative calm, even when they’re swinging hard or exploding into near-free jazz ecstasy, that makes comparisons to the classic John Coltrane quartet tempting, but to me there’s a more modern antecedent, which is the Branford Marsalis quartet with pianist Kenny Kirkland, bassist Robert Hurst, and drummer Jeff “Tain” Watts that made 1990’s Crazy People Music. They were only together for that one album, but they cracked open the classic hard bop sound, finding a way to move forward while still maintaining strong ties to the past (at times including explicit quotations from classic jazz tunes, like when Marsalis swiped a phrase from Miles Davis on “The Ballad Of Chet Kincaid” or rewrote John Coltrane’s “Mr. P.C.” as “Mr. Steepe”).

Transfiguration is the sound of a band that knows itself and is confident about the journey ahead. The compositions are simple and powerful, and the musicians play them with gravitas and purpose. “Swerve” is a fascinating example; Taylor lays down a stuttering beat, over which Ortiz and Jones rumble and clang, while Lewis goes off, playing fierce, almost obsessive lines that sound like he’s chasing something through a dark forest, never frantic but just a little bit agitated. This is a great album from a great band, and if Lewis, a man of many projects, chooses to make them his anchor for several more albums, I’ll be listening. (From Transfiguration, out now via Intakt.)


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