Iyer's pianism is extraordinary — sometimes the independence between left and right hands is so complete that you have to remind yourself that all those voices are coming from one person. He tends toward a rumbling density of sound that can turn clangorous, but he can just as easily drift off into a Messiaen-like chromatic reverie.
Iyer — who was a long-time member of saxophonist and composer Steve Coleman's band — says he doesn't think his own jazz education has been that odd. "It's true that I have a different academic background. But in terms of my background in this music, it's not that unorthodox. A lot of stuff I learned by myself, I had some musical instruction as a child, and then I learned by working on stuff with my peers and by apprenticing with elders. If you talked to someone like Barry Harris, that's exactly what he'd say."
Herewith, an edited transcript of my conversation with Vijay Iyer:
WHAT KIND OF WORK DO YOU DO WITH YOUR COMPOSITION STUDENTS? Some people are trying to write tunes and others are trying to be composers, and that's not the same thing. Writing a tune and playing over the tune doesn't really create any new opportunities or challenge the musicians, so a lot of stuff ends up sounding the same after a while. I try to give them strategies for composing and strategies for improvising. And then thinking more about the overview, and not just the melodies and chord changes and playing the right notes, but about what they really want to say.
HOW DO YOU TALK TO THEM ABOUT "CHALLENGING THE PLAYERS" IN THEIR WRITING? DO YOU ADVISE THEM TO WRITE MATERIAL THAT WILL CHALLENGE THEM AS IMPROVISERS? Not just challenge for its own sake, but to allow for some sense of discovery in the music. That's what I as a listener want to hear. It's not even about forcing some agenda as a composer, it's more like what's worth listening to. You already have 100 years worth of recorded music, so why add a damn thing to the pile after what we already have? It's not about creating the burden of radical originality. It' more about a feeling of purposefulness.
WHAT DO YOU SUGGEST AS "TOOLS FOR IMPROVISATION"? Part of the problem is that in a lot of these scholastic jazz programs, there's some sort of lexicon that people internalize that has very little to do with the history of the music. It has more to do with the history of pedagogy — the history of how jazz has been taught. So they tend to approach things in a pretty formulaic way and not in an empowering way. So it's a lot of connect-the-dots or paint-by-numbers kind of stuff. It doesn't really foster a lot of creativity or original thinking. I find I need to help people break out of that mode. It doesn't mean that you have to completely invent a new language. This formulaic approach to jazz education has to do with a mis-reading of how the original creators of this music went about what they were doing.
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