A jazz-piano master clears his own path

Iyer calling
By JON GARELICK  |  December 7, 2011

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WORKING An up-to-the minute composer and improviser, Vijay Iyer learned how to play jazz the old-fashioned way.

When I got the pianist and composer Vijay Iyer on the phone to talk about his upcoming Celebrity Series double-bill with the Miguel Zenón Quartet, I meant to talk to him about his serene and absorbing new album Tirtha (ACT), with the tabla player Nitin Mitta and guitarist Prasanna. But the fact is, Iyer's show at Berklee Friday night will be with his superb trio with bassist Stephan Crump and drummer Marcus Gilmore. What's more, this being a music-school town, I wanted to ask him about his teaching. He's on the faculty at both NYU and Manhattan School of Music — which is interesting because Iyer has never formally studied piano or composition. Rather, the 40-ish Rochester-raised Iyer has an undergraduate degree from Yale in math and physics, a masters in physics from Berkeley, and is a largely self-taught pianist. So how does he teach his own students?

"Well, I'm not teaching anyone how to play piano," Iyer says with the soft chuckle that surfaces throughout our conversation. "I have private students on all different instruments." The idea is to give the students a chance to study with "a working artist who's out there in the world." So he works with whatever they want to bring him, whether it's performing or composition. "Usually I listen to what they're doing, or they show me what they're working on, and I try to make it better." And yes, he does do a bit of coaching for pianists. "I had one student last year who'd never thought about touch or sound. . . . And those are two pretty important things." The soft chuckle again. "Or maybe someone comes in and plays a whole pile of clichés. And I tell them to stop." Chuckle.

If Iyer has ever played a cliché, I haven't heard it. Born in the US of Indian parents, he is one of a group of jazz players of South Asian heritage that includes his frequent playing partner, alto saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa, and the guitarist Rez Abbasi. Though Iyer and Mahanthappa grew up with Indian music around the house ("there's that sound again," as Iyer remembers the sensation), they came at their parents' music via American jazz. The result is an unpredictable flow and fusion of music from both musicians.

Standards pop up in Iyer's repertoire, from Monk and Ellington to Jimmy Van Heusen and Leonard Bernstein. But mostly he plays originals or completely transforms pieces like Bernstein's "Somewhere" or Julius Hemphill's "Dogon A.D." That inventiveness helped make the trio's Historicity (ACT) one of the most celebrated jazz releases of 2010. Indian scales and rhythms are referenced, but only obliquely, and you're just as likely to hear hip-hop in Gilmore's patter. (Besides working in standard acoustic-jazz formats, Iyer's written and improvised with the hip-hop MC and producer Mike Ladd.) Though Historicity is an up-to-the-minute jazz piano trio, Tirtha is more Indo-jazz fusion, informed by the sitar-like bent pitches of Prasanna's scales and the Carnatic beats of Mitta's tabla.

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