Perhaps it's built into the fabric of jazz that we listen for — and even expect to hear — quantum leaps from time to time, steps that mark distant degrees of separation from what's already known and anticipated.
When you listen to Vijay Iyer's “Epistrophy” on his 2010 album Solo, for example, it's nearly as far removed from Thelonious Monk's original as Charlie Parker's “Donna Lee” sounds in relation to “(Back Home Again in) Indiana,” the 1917 MacDonald and Hanley song on which Bird based the chord changes. “Epistrophy” fumbles into existence from a mid-register F#-minor-seventh sonority, staggering forward, lurching like a Steve Reich piece for a full minute before Monk's four-note head peers through the clouds, separating itself out from insistent bass notes as the register widens. From there, Iyer takes discrete musical elements from Monk — the half-step motive and ensuing tension it creates, the brief resolution at the bridge, Monk's syncopated quirks and bumps — as the bases for mini-explorations; meters argue between his two hands, percolating to an abrupt collapse just short of five minutes later.
“I've been playing that song in lots of ways for 25 years,” Iyer says. “I suppose there's not a linear development. I've developed over the course of 25 years my own musical language, or at least I'm trying to force it to evolve. I'm trying to grow and expand as much as I can.” Monk, Iyer's number-one influence, is never far from his mind, and he's quick to point out the mix of irreverence, playfulness and respect involved when Bird rearranged standards.
“I worship Monk, but it would not be interesting to me to try to play like him in any literal sense,” he says. “It's fair to say I learned to play from him as much as from anybody else. And certainly in the process there's a playfulness with his own pieces. He'll take his own pieces and transform them.” Iyer points to a live version of “Pannonica” where Monk doesn't play the head: “He's already embellishing it from measure one. That's the impulse that inspires me to always be creating.”
No one cries foul anymore when a musician brings something new to a standard, so long as it “swings.” As a catch-all term for the smile-inducing effect of jazz played well, whatever the reasons, “swing” has become far too loaded a term to be useful in a general sense. But as a specific rhythmic mode, one of many at a jazz musician's disposal, swing is not Iyer's preferred groove, although it's one he does well; listen to his version of “Black and Tan Fantasy,” also on Solo, for example.
“I have no quarrel with swing,” Iyer says. “I can play with that. But one way to bring music forward is to change the rhythmic accent of it.” One of the things Iyer says he adores about Monk's music from the 1960s in particular is the way it coalesced into a really powerful groove-based music. “The groove is so happening that it's scandalous,” Iyer says. “I love swing-based music, and I play it plenty, but it doesn't figure prominently in my own music. There are people who do it better than I do.”
Although he loves playing solo piano, these days Iyer is mostly excited about the dynamic he's created with his longtime trio with drummer Marcus Gilmore and bassist Stephan Crump. Historicity, their latest trio recording released in 2009, won Jazz Album of the Year in both DownBeat and the Village Voice Critics Polls, was named Jazz/Pop Album of the Year by the New York Times, Jazz Album of the Year by National Public Radio, the Los Angeles Times and PopMatters.com.
“With my own ensemble I like the dynamic that we have,” Iyer says. “It has its own specificity to it, its own give and take. … It's like when you have a basketball team that has a lot of experience playing together. It's able to move with intelligence and freedom but there's also order that emerges. It's not just a bunch of people running around. I like to present that in my music because it's something we have. It's rare that you get to build something at length, a common language over that period of time.” What Iyer craves as a listener is music that challenges his own understanding of what music is. “That's what Monk did for me when I first heard him,” he says.
Between tweets about upcoming shows and retweets of NPR, ThinkProgess and Democracy Now, the plugged-in, politically vocal pianist lets slip that the next trio release is in the works: “thinking hard about our next trio album. i'd better be, because we're recording it in less than 2 weeks.” An avid Twitter user, Iyer isn't convinced that the microblogging site is a necessary arrow in a young jazz musician's quiver.
“It's a big waste of time. They should call it ‘Fritter,'” he deadpans. “I just like being connected to people... Music offers an experience of connection with other people, particularly in the live environment, and those moments are harder and harder to come by now. We depend too much on the media for our connection. I do find that [Twitter] is where I get a lot of information as an artist and as a person.”
His political conscience is not something he's not necessarily quick to abandon when he gets to the bandstand either. “It's nice,” Iyer says, “when music can eclipse the reality outside the door or the everyday hubbub of our lives and that's one power we have as musicians. But it's also important that this music comes from a lineage of resistance. Basically [jazz] is a music that survives in spite of its origins... It's music from a marginalized community of color that dreamed something into existence against all odds and against forces that were conspiring for it not to happen. It's part of the language and aesthetic of the music. It's that defiance and that strength in spite of it all. That's an animating force. It's not something that we should try to forget.”
Catch the Vijay Iyer Trio at the Litchfield Jazz Festival on Saturday, Aug. 6 at 5:15 p.m.
Write to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow me on Twitter at @MikeHamad.