Live In-Studio: Vijay Iyer, Jazz’s Incredible Hulk

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Vijay Iyer
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The pianist and MacArthur genius Vijay Iyer is one of the great living jazz musicians, although a lot of his music isn't what you'd recognize as jazz. In addition to leading a trio and playing duets with a saxophonist, Iyer programs laptops, has composed a song cycle about Iraq war veterans, and writes chamber music.

The heart of Iyer’s new record Mutations — his first for the prestigious label ECM — is a suite for strings in 10 sections. This might come as a surprise to those who know Iyer for his keyboard improvisations. He jokes with Kurt Andersen that he’s like the Incredible Hulk: his Bruce Banner plays jazz, until his hidden side comes bursting through. Mutations is about bringing those two sides together.

Other jazz musicians have worked with strings, but Iyer’s background gives him a unique perspective on collaboration. “I had 15 years of violin lessons — Bach solo partitas and Mendelssohn concertos, and I played in orchestras. I know what it feels like to be that kind of musician who doesn’t really feel empowered to improvise,” he tells Kurt. “Even though I am an improviser on piano, I was never an improviser on violin.”

Iyer also holds a PhD from UC Berkeley in a program he designed: music perception and cognition. It reflects his understanding of music not as a passive position of absorbing sound, but as a physical process. “Music is something we do,” he believes. “We have this constant influx of sensation on multiple channels and we respond to it by doing things: turning our heads in the direction of a sound, or reaching for something. When I listen to Thelonius Monk’s music — and that’s like the most important music in the world to me — I hear his hands,” Iyer says. “I hear actions in the music, I don’t hear just sounds in the abstract.”

Iyer performs “Vuln, Part 2” (from Mutations) and “Spellbound and Sacrosanct, Cowrie Shells and the Shimmering Sea” (from Memorophilia and Mutations) live in the studio.

Music Playlist

  1. Mutation VII: Kernel

    Artist: Vijay Iyer
    Album: Mutations
    Label: ECM
  2. Vuln, Part 2

    Artist: Vijay Iyer
    Album: Mutations
    Label: ECM
  3. Mutation III: Canon

    Artist: Vijay Iyer
    Album: Mutations
    Label: ECM
  4. Spellbound And Sacrosanct, Cowrie Shells And The Shimmering Sea

    Artist: Vijay Iyer
    Album: Memorophilia
    Label: Asian Improv Records