Visionary pianist Iyer gets a well-earned MacArthur

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Vijay Iyer

Photograph of Vijay Iyer, MacArthur Fellowship recipient. (John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation)

When Vijay Iyer performed at the Chicago Cultural Center in 2001, there was no mistaking the grandeur of his pianism, nor its harmonic originality.

Since then, Iyer has developed into a singular voice in jazz, his solo playing by turns galvanic and introspective, his ensemble work mercurial in sound and gesture.

It's not an exaggeration to say that no one in jazz sounds like Iyer, including Iyer. His music, in other words, is too chameleonic and rhythmically volatile to be easily predicted or categorized, even from phrase to phrase. Each idea leads to a surprising sound or texture or color.

That the originality and creativity of Iyer's music has won him a 2013 MacArthur Fellowship, or “genius grant,” will come as a surprise to no one who has followed his gripping live performances and groundbreaking recordings of the past couple of decades.

To Iyer, his unorthodox methods of building improvisations and compositions spring from the work of inventors who came before him.

“I'm really inspired by the composer-pianists of the last century, particularly (Duke) Ellington and (Thelonious) Monk and people in that lineage who aren't just playing, but they're making things,” says Iyer, speaking by phone from his home in New York and adding such names as piano innovators Cecil Taylor, McCoy Tyner and Bud Powell.

“They deal with the entire range of the instrument — and the range of the piano is (essentially) the range of human hearing. So you kind of have a lot of options, and you have access to a really wide range of sensations,” adds Iyer, who holds a Ph.D. in the cognitive science of music from the University of California at Berkeley.

“I think a lot about sound and about resonance and about how tones interact.”

You can hear as much in Iyer's best albums, which conjure a range of unexpected sounds. The epic scale, tonal depth and radical approach to trio playing on his “Historicity” (2009), the plush textures and radical harmonies of “Tragicomic” (2008) and the expressive breadth of “Reimagining” (2005) distinguish Iyer's work.

In performance, Iyer has been equally striking, the pianist reveling in sudden, startling contrasts and an intriguing approach to rhythm frequently marked by accelerations and decelerations.

Yet whether Iyer is transforming Stevie Wonder's “Big Brother,” Andrew Hill's “Smoke Stack” or Leonard Bernstein's “Somewhere,” the music conveys a rhythmic tension that cannot be ignored.

“I think about rhythm as action,” says Iyer, 41. “Rhythm is very much the center of what I do.

“It stems from my understanding of what music is and how it works. Rhythm is really the first thing that hits you about a piece of music. Before you know you're listening to it, the rhythm is inside of you — it hits you in the gut.”

Certainly it does when Iyer is at the keyboard, but that's just part of the alchemy of his work. Two decades ago, when Iyer was launching his career, he was beginning to grapple with how his Indian heritage affected his music — or could. Just as pianist Danilo Perez brought the sounds of his native Panama to jazz and saxophonist David Sanchez did likewise with the cultural traditions of Puerto Rico, Iyer sought to make connection with music of his ancestry.

One hastens to note that other jazz artists, too, have opened their music to the sounds of this region, most notably Chicago guitarist Fareed Haque and saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa (who spent the early years of his career in Chicago and has been a frequent Iyer collaborator). Each has done so in his own way, and none more subtly than Iyer.

“When I was coming of age, we were among the first people from that community to really try to step out into American culture and participate in it or have any impact on it,” says Iyer.

“So it was new for me and my colleagues, like Rudresh, and it was also new for the rest of America to encounter someone like me. It was a lot of work that had to be done on both sides. 

“For me, grounding myself in some kind of understanding of that heritage, which I had experienced more obliquely and not in any formal way growing up. It wasn't until I was 20 or so that I started to think: ‘What is all that, and how do I relate to that, and what is it to me?'”

So Iyer, who was born in the United States, began studying the music of his culture, “not to try to be a master of Indian classical music, but at least to be able to understand and accommodate some of those ideas and work with them as a composer and an improviser. And also to get to the point where I could collaborate with Indian musicians.

“So almost all my music has some trace of it. … That doesn't mean that it sounds like Indian music. … But it bears the traces.”

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