Wadada Leo Smith and Vijay Iyer Find Their Cosmic Rhythm

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I was riding the 3 train to Harlem, heading to an interview with pianist Vijay Iyer about “A Cosmic Rhythm With Each Stroke,” his collaborative suite with trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith, when I read the following front-page headline in The New York Times:

“Gravitational Waves Detected, Confirming Einstein’s Theory.”

Dennis Overbye’s story—the most poetic piece of journalism I’ve come across in the Times in many years—gave the news about sonic evidence of, well, a cosmic rhythm: A “faint rising tone” that, physicists say, “is the first direct evidence of gravitational waves, the ripples in the fabric of space-time that Einstein predicted a century ago.”

When I last spent time with Wadada Leo Smith, he was leading a workshop for instrumentalists, during which he’d pulled out an image meant to represent a “black hole.” He wanted to investigate the idea of a black hole through tone and rhythm.

You can find my review in the Wall Street Journal of the Smith-Iyer collaboration here.

Or here: Continue reading “Wadada Leo Smith and Vijay Iyer Find Their Cosmic Rhythm”

Vijay Iyer's New Day Gig at the Met Breuer

Vijay Iyer performing at the Met Breuer opening with Mark Turner/ PHOTO: SAMANTHA NANDEZ/BFA
Vijay Iyer performing at the Met Breuer opening with Mark Turner/ PHOTO: SAMANTHA NANDEZ/BFA

Seated at a Steinway grand piano in a dark, intimate room in early March, Vijay Iyerwasn’t simply playing another gig.
Aficionados in attendance could recognize a loose medley of familiar jazz themes, including Wayne Shorter’s “ Nefertiti” and Billy Strayhorn’s “Chelsea Bridge.” Mostly, Mr. Iyer and his duet partner, tenor saxophonist Mark Turner, issued an unbroken and largely abstract flow, moving easily from dense dissonances to languid melodies.
Musically, the scene wasn’t unlike Mr. Iyer’s performances at any number of Manhattan jazz clubs and concert halls. Except here, the listeners were gathered in a small gallery behind the lobby of the Met Breuer, the celebrated five-story hulk of a building that serves as the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s new outpost for modern and contemporary art.
The audience was witnessing the first installment of “Relation,” a performance residency showcasing Mr. Iyer, who is equally distinguished as a pianist, composer and educator. His ongoing performances open to the general public Friday and run through the end of the month.
“It’ll be my day gig,” said Mr. Iyer, in an interview at his Harlem home. “It’s almost like having an office.” Continue reading “Vijay Iyer's New Day Gig at the Met Breuer”

Constructing an Identity, And Delving Deeper: Rajna Swaminathan On Making Music With Vijay Iyer

Rajna Swaminathan/ photo by Jaimie Milner

I’m looking forward to pianist Vijay Iyer’s performance on March 7th at the Metropolitan Museum of Art; there, before the dramatic Temple of Dendur, Iyer will display the deep rapport and driving sense of exploration that makes his new trio CD, “Break Stuff” (ECM), his most accessible recording to date as well as his most daring.
If the most popular distillation of Iyer’s aesthetic is his trio with bassist Stephan Crump and drummer Marcus Gilmore, his music flows in multiple streams. And it absorbs various streams of influence. As I wrote in a Wall Street Journal piece last year:

Mr. Iyer places himself more within lineages than genres. “I’m here because of a series of generous African-American people who let me be here,” he said, particularly those connected to Chicago’s Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, who shared musical concepts and a larger sense of artistic ambition.
There’s another lineage into which he, the son of immigrants from India, was born. That influence, overt in some other projects, is finely ingrained even in sections of the new album. He seeks a perhaps radical yet logical unity of these heritages—his note to one trio album cites “the Brown and Black Atlantic.”

Listeners could immerse themselves in several of Iyer’s modes of musical expression, swim in more than one of his streams, during his recent six-night stand at The Stone in Manhattan’s East Village. I caught only the opening set, which included Rajna Swaminathan on mrudangam (a percussion instrument in Carnatic music); Anjna Swaminathan (Rajna’s sister) on violin, and Graham Haynes, playing cornet, and sometimes triggering electronic sounds and loops from a laptop.
After the set, I asked Iyer about the combination of piano and mrudangam, whose rhythmic and tonal qualities seemed especially complementary. Iyer told me he’d been thinking about that blend for a very long time. I ended up having an email exchange with Rajna Swaminathan, simply out of curiosity. Her replies were so focused and revealing about the nature, pleasures and challenges of such collaborations, that I’ve included it here in full, with her permission.
Her replies speak about much more than cross-cultural collaboration. Yet, were I an editor, I’d be deciding between two as to which is the perfect pull-quote:

I would say that working with Vijay has rather resonated with me on the level of our mutual experience as Indian Americans, and that sense of community pervades the music we make. I think that’s a deeper connection and purpose—it’s not just about nostalgia or emotion for Carnatic music, but about constructing an identity and experience around us.
With any two traditions, it’s not hard to find the outer layer of “affinity”- but when you delve deeper, you find the nuances that reflect the great contrast in perspectives.
Continue reading “Constructing an Identity, And Delving Deeper: Rajna Swaminathan On Making Music With Vijay Iyer”

Jazz Pianism Takes Hold at Harvard

Pianists Herbie Hancock (l.) and Vijay Iyer

If you’re walking around the campus of Harvard University in the coming months, you might bump into Herbie Hancock, a pianist whose harmonic and stylistic innovations are essential to any full understanding of modern jazz. Or you might pass by Vijay Iyer, who is among the bright and bold generations of pianists to absorb Hancock’s legacy along with those of other pianists—in Iyer’s case, prominently including Randy Weston, Thelonious Monk and Andrew Hill—before crafting individualized pianistic languages rooted in yet not defined by jazz.
You might well find Hancock and Iyer together.
Their paths will intersect at the university as each exerts a powerful influence on how music is made, heard and considered there, as well as how culture in general is construed, beginning this Spring semester.
Hancock has been named the 2014 Charles Eliot Norton Professor Of Poetry at Harvard. Iyer will serve as the university’s inaugural Franklin D. and Florence Rosenblatt Professor of the Arts. Continue reading “Jazz Pianism Takes Hold at Harvard”