Perfect Sound Forever

Vijay Iyer: Musical Architext Extraordinaire

Photo © 1996, Bob Hsiang

by Dave Kaufman

The San Francisco Bay Area is home to a remarkably vibrant cultural and artistic community. The musical scene is incredibly rich and diverse and affords artists considerable opportunities to experiment with sounds and forms. This creative climate has given rise to the Asian Improv movement, which has produced some of the most exciting and original sounds in the world of modern jazz and improvised music. Berkeley-based pianist, composer, and bandleader Vijay Iyer, is one of the most promising new voices to emerge from the Asian Improv scene. Iyer works in rather diverse musical settings from straight-ahead and avant-garde jazz to hip hop to alto-saxophonist Steve Coleman's experiments in collective improvisation.

Iyer was born and raised in Rochester, New York, the son of South Indian immigrants. He received 15 years of Western classical training on violin beginning, at the age of 3. Vijay was also exposed to a wide range of Indian classical, religious, and popular music. He picked up the piano early in his high school years and is largely self-trained on that instrument. This period coincided with a growing interest in jazz. After completing an undergraduate degree at Yale, Iyer came to Berkeley to do a Ph.D. in physics in 1992. Vijay continued to pursue his jazz interests and served as the house pianist in jam sessions at the Bird Kage, a semi-legendary club in North Oakland, which featured some of the best local musicians such as Ed Kelly and Smily Winters, as well guest luminaries such as Pharoah Sanders. This greatly enriched his understanding of the jazz idiom and the lived jazz experience. In an interview with A Shuman (April, 1997), Iyer states "I found that the music we were playing was a profound expression of their lives, and the lives of the audience members as well."

Soon after this experience, Iyer came into contact with the burgeoning Asian Improv scene. In this movement, there are many like-minded socially conscious artists who explore the music of their ancestral heritage in the context of an expansive jazz vernacular. Meeting M-Base leader and alto-saxophonist par excellence Steve Coleman proved to be another momentous event in Iyer's formation. He would go on to participate in three of Coleman's recording as well as tour the US, Europe and Africa with his ensemble. Iyer credits Coleman with expanding his understanding and sense of rhythm, which in turn has helped shape his approach to improvisation and compositions.

Iyer has recorded two stellar albums as a leader that provide a vehicle for his compositions. Both releases are on the Asian Improv label. The first recording, Memoraphilia, is something of a star-studded affair with generous contributions from Steve Coleman, the brilliant trombonist and computer music visionary George Lewis, Francis Wong on tenor, and Kash Killion on cello. The albums also include several young adventurous musicians, including Liberty Ellman on guitar, Jeff Bilmes and Jeff Brock on bass, and Brad Hargreaves and Elliot Humberto Kavee on drums.

Memorophilia features three different groups including the Vijay Iyer trio (with Brock and Hargreaves) on three cuts which is augmented by Steve Coleman on another two songs; a quartet known as the Poisonous Prophets (with Ellman, Bilmes, and Kavee) play on one tune, "Peripatetics"; and the quintet Spirit Complex (including Lewis, Killion, Wong, and Kavee) perform on two songs. Iyer also plays solo piano on one track ("Algebra"). This song, as well as the Trio numbers, are the best places to hear Iyer's surprisingly mature piano artistry. The opening song, "Relativist's Waltz", features an outstanding contribution from Coleman, playing in a manner reminiscent of his work with the great and vastly underrated Dave Holland Sextet. The Poisonous Prophets indulge in more groove-oriented sounds with Ellman and Iyer engage in some fascinating loose-jointed interplay while Kavee and Bilmes prove a rock steady anchor. "March and Epilogue", performed by Spirit Complex, is also one of the truly outstanding tracks on this album. They perform a high velocity free swinging free jazz march, reminiscent at times of Henry Threadgill's Sextet recordings as well as music of the AACM, of which Lewis is a charter member. Lewis and Wong indulge in some high wire theatrics, playing ferocious solos. Killion's cello work at the climax of this number is absolutely spine tingling!

Iyer's second release (recorded a year later), Architextures (continuing a predilection for neologisms), features solo piano, a trio with Brock and Hargreaves; and an Octet in which this trio is augmented by the superb Rudresh Mahanthappa on alto saxophone, Aaron Stewart on tenor, Ellman on guitar, Eric Crystal on tenor and soprano, and Kevin Mingus on bass. Although it lacks the star power of the first recording, Architextures is ultimately a more mature, thematically cohesive and satisfying recording. It also demonstrates considerable growth in Iyer's playing, compositions, and especially in his arrangements. The album conveys the sense of a journey over time and space, transcending cultural and musical boundaries. "Meetings of Rivers", featuring the Octet is suggestive of a modernist take on a Mingus large ensemble suite. "The converging of streams of eight musicians" is how Iyer aptly describes this piece in the liner notes. This song presents some excellent soloing as well as stellar ensemble work. Charms, a rather upbeat trio number, offers some very fine (almost) straight-ahead jazz piano with a few rhythmic quirks thrown in for good measure. "Three Peas" has a kind of Hindustani beat and some wonderful alto playing by Mahanthappa that also evokes South Asian sounds and rhythms. "Trident" is my favorite Trio performance on this record (with the rather beautiful "Los Ojos" not too far behind). "Trident" conveys an alternately and seemingly incongruous dark and somber mood with a peaceful, meditative one. Both of Iyer's recordings are complex, cerebral, and richly nuanced works. The patient listener will be amply rewarded.

Iyer is currently completing a Ph.D. in Technology, Music, and Cognition at the Center for New Music and Audio Technologies at UC Berkeley. Aside from his considerable musical talents, Vijay is also a gifted writer of prose and an astute social commentator (check out his web site: Iyer is planning to move to New York City in January, 1999 to pursue his musical as well as his academic ambitions. He has recently recorded his third album, Astro Chromatic to be released in 1999. He continues to lead several groups, as well as performing with many other artists, including the cutting edge hip hop group Midnight Voices, and E.W. Wainright's African Roots of Jazz. I've been very fortunate to seem him perform on a number of occasions in very different musical contexts. In the section below, I describe three of those performances.

Vijay Iyer in Concert
The Poisonous Prophets (November 24, 1997)

The Bay Area offers up a weekly dose of great jazz, performed by some of the biggest names in the business. On a given week, you can see 2 or 3 star attractions at venues such as Yoshi's and Kimballs. There is also some exceptionally fine local jazz talent that is equally deserving of jazz aficionado's patronage. I recently saw an immensely enjoyable performance led by Berkeley resident, and pianist extraordinaire Vijay Iyer. On this evening, he led a group that played edgy music that skillfully negotiated the inside/outside continuum. The quartet, known as the Poisonous Prophets included a most fascinating drummer, Elliot Humberto Kavee, guitarist Liberty Ellman, and bass guitarist Jeff Bilmes. This group had been working together for quite a while and this was to be their last gig since Kavee was moving to New York. They played the UC Berkeley Center for New Music and Audio Technology (a program and experimental research facility). Iyer is also a graduate student in an affiliated program. The performance room accommodated about 50 patrons and was completely packed with people standing. It's a charming room with high ceilings ornately decorated with wood trimmings and large windows.

The group played a 60 minute set consisting of four original compositions. They opened with a mesmerizing 25 minute piece strongly reminiscent of Don Pullen's edgier works (I think he introduced it as "I Can't Decide"). The piece featured some Pullen-like percussive angularity from Iyer creating a level of sustained tension and some great interplay with Ellman and Kavee. Iyer exhibits a range of influences, including Pullen, perhaps Keith Jarrett, and Cecil Taylor. On his fine CD Memoraphilia, he lists about 100 different musicians who have inspired him. I often found myself comparing Iyer's piano playing with D.D. Jackson. There are some interesting similarities as well as notable differences. Both are young classically trained musicians who demonstrate remarkable agility, grace, and exceptional improvisational capabilities. Both men have common influences, most notably, Don Pullen and Randy Weston. Jackson has a more aggressive attack and tends to play over the top, whereas Iyer plays with more restraint. Jackson also has a certain soulfulness and gospel influence that permeates some of his songs, while Iyer's music has a somewhat more cerebral quality, yet he maintains a certain lyricism. Both are singularly unique talents who transcend the sum of their influences.

Kavee is one of the most unique and intriguing drummers I've ever heard. He coaxes a fascinating range of sounds and timbres out of a very elemental drum kit. Kavee reminded me a little of Gerry Hemingway, though he brings with him quite a tool kit of percussive implements, whereas Kavee just used drum sticks. He has a rather soft touch, despite a very busy playing style. On this evening, he appeared to be the most overtly free player of this group. Kavee actually works in a wide range of musical contexts.

The second song was a brand new, as yet untitled (and unfinished I think), piece by Bilmes. It started out really promising with some Monkish introduction that sounded a bit like a nursery rhyme, but became somewhat aimless and didn't offer any real sense of progression. The third tune was a quasi-modal number that provided a vehicle for some magnificent guitar work by Liberty Ellman. He has a sound that is somewhat reminiscent of Jerry Hahn (his work with John Handy) and pre-Mahavishnu John McLaughlin though Ellman also tends to explore the outer realms. I really enjoyed his playing, especially on this number. I was able to only stay for one set, but enjoyed it thoroughly.

Vijay Iyer and Rudresh Mahanthappa (February 23, 1998)

I had the great fortune of seeing a superb duo performance by pianist Vijay Iyer and alto saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa at Berkeley's Center for New Music and Technology. I had heard rave reviews of Mahanthappa's playing at the Chicago Jazz Festival. He is a truly formidable player with a rather distinctive sound. Iyer and Mahanthappa are both exceptionally talented young musicians (in their mid 20's) who have a natural musical affinity for each other. They opened with a Thelonius Monk composition, one of three Monk tunes they would play. On this tune, Mahanthappa displayed a tone that was strongly reminiscent of Eric Dolphy (as is sometimes suggested). But the Dolphy influence was rarely in evidence during the balance of the 2 sets. He plays phrases that sometime sounds like Trane, but he can also produce a raspy/breathy sound suggestive of maybe a Coleman Hawkins (or more likely one of his musical progeny). Mahanthappa's alto often sounds very much like a tenor to my ears. Both musicians are thoroughly modernists, having assimilated a wide range of influences. Yet their playing never veered very far outside on this occasion. Iyer and Mahanthappa are both gifted players, but are rarely given to showy displays of virtuosity.

The 2 sets consisted of mostly original compositions, highlighted by a beautiful (anti-war) meditative piece by Iyer called "1001", a modally inspired Mahanthappa composition "Hope", and a Hindustani-flavored tune called "Three Peas". On the latter tune, Iyer would repeatedly hit one note while plucking the piano strings. Mahanthappa managed to coax a shenai-like sounds out of his saxophone. The duo also played inspired renditions of "Round Midnight" and "Trinkle Tinkle". I've had the pleasure of seeing Iyer perform before, but Mahanthappa was a real revelation (even considering the glowing reviews).

Vijay Iyer and Miya Masaoka (February 26, 1998)

Vijay Iyer has been giving a series of duo performances over the past couple of weeks. Recently, I had the opportunity to seem him perform a duet with koto player Miya Masaoka. The koto is a 21 string Japanese instrument (similar to a zither), which is played on a horizontal plane (kind of like vibes). It wasn't quite as exhilarating as the performance with Mahanthappa, but it was immensely enjoyable. Masaoka is a first rate free improvisor who has worked in many different avant-garde and other contexts. She is also involved in various kinds of performance art. She is classically trained in both Japanese and Western traditions and is very well versed in jazz. On the 2 occasions I've seen Masaoka perform, she has displayed her more experimental side.

The duo performed two 50 minute sets that included some lengthy semi-free form (without obvious pre-set structures) improvisational pieces as well as some compositions by both Iyer and Masaoka. They also performed a couple of Monk tunes, including a very pretty "Round Midnight". Masaoka has recently released an excellent recording featuring the music of Monk. Much of the evening's music was devoted to improvisation in sound and textures. Masaoka is a master at coaxing an enormous range of electronic and acoustic effects from the koto. The koto's pickups were wired (similar to an electrified upright bass) and connected to a series of pedals and a digital midi-interface (of sorts). She used the electronic effects in the appropriate measure (that is to say not excessively). She also had a sampler which she used on a couple of occasions. Masaoka also employed numerous acoustical implements including bows of varying size (the koto is normally finger plucked), drum sticks, and devices for dampening the strings. She used all of them with great skill, especially the bows. She can also create sounds by waving her hand above the strings (kind of like a theramin). One of her most impressive skills is the way she can so convincingly coax the blues out of the koto. Iyer, an extremely skilled and inventive pianist in both mainstream and avant-garde jazz, was a little more grounded in musical structure. Although, he employed a range of effects, including sliding a glass over his piano strings or using it to dampen the strings, creating a very interesting effect. He would also use sheets of paper and rub them across the strings. The end result was a really enjoyable performance and much more musical than this description might suggest. At it's best, the effects were framed by musical figures and used to elaborate on musical motifs. Both Masaoka and Iyer are superb musicians and improvisors of the highest order.

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