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Dan Ouellette’s Jazz Notes: The Music of Transformation by Pianist Vijay Iyer at BAM

Vijay Iyer  Photo by Lena Adasheva

Vijay Iyer at BAM December 18-20
By Dan Ouellette
December 10, 2014

When Harlem-based pianist/composer Vijay Iyer takes the Harvey Theater stage at this year’s BAM Next Wave Festival December 18-20, he deserves a jazz hero’s welcome for what has been a banner year, including a multi-album recording deal with the renowned ECM Records; a terrific debut album for the label, Mutations, which includes a remarkable ten-part suite with string quartet and three solo piano/electronics compositions; and perhaps the most challenging and impressive work, the shimmering, percussive, pensive, furious score with the twelve-piece International Contemporary Ensemble to the celebratory and compelling film by Prashant Bhargava, Radhe Radhe: Rites of Holi.

At BAM, Iyer will present the Mutations I-X work, the Radhe Radhe film and score, and a new solo piano composition commissioned by BAM. The recent MacArthur Genius Grant honoree (2013) and a music scholar at Harvard University (the first Franklin D. and Florence Rosenblatt Professor of the Arts), Iyer has been on a dizzying trajectory that traces its roots to the San Francisco Bay Area.

In December 1998, Iyer joined the exodus of talented young San Francisco Bay Area jazz artists to New York [disclosure: I left S.F. less than a year later for N.Y]. The S.F. scene was molten hot in the early-to-mid ’90s with such top-tier locals as Berkeley-based Charlie Hunter and Peter Apfelbaum among many others, but greener pastures stretched East where the rising stars matured their music.

Iyer had studied mathematics and physics at Yale, then received an interdisciplinary PhD in the cognitive science of music at the University of California, Berkeley. Cerebral stuff for certain, but the pianist began finding his voice with a meld of lyrical-to-avant jazz and classical. In New York he started working in quartet and duo settings with fellow Indian-American saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa, developing a unique and energetic music and playing at renowned clubs such as Sweet Basil (which shuttered in 2001 and reopened as Sweet Rhythm before shuttering for good in 2009).

New devotees and critics began to take note, including jazz scribe and scholar Gary Giddins, who sang praise for the youngster in his must-read Weather Bird column in The Village Voice (which ran from 1974-2003). Iyer remembers it well. “Having Gary recognize what I was doing was a pivotal moment for me,” he says in a telephone conversation from Los Angeles where he was rehearsing for a show at UCLA. “It was the year 2000 and I was in New York as an unknowable. It was hard to feel the impact of what I was doing. So what Gary wrote was an early blessing.” Significant sideman gigs followed with such musical adventurers as Wadada Leo Smith, Roscoe Mitchell, Burnt Sugar and poet Mike Ladd.

Since his 1995 debut album, Memorophilia on the Bay Area upstart label Asian Improv Records, Iyer recorded for several imprints, including Pi Recordings, ACT Music & Vision and Savoy Jazz. Earlier this year he signed to independent European record label ECM, helmed by the esteemed founder-producer Manfred Eicher and delivered Mutations. “Working with ECM has been special,” Iyer says. “Manfred is a great listener and he takes the work seriously. It’s good to have another pair of ears thinking artistically. At ECM, the art comes first.”
This fall ECM also released the DVD of Radhe Radhe: Rites of Holi. Iyer explains the origin of the project, which started as a request by the team at Carolina Performing Arts. The organization wanted him to create a new piece for a series it was presenting celebrating the 100th anniversary of the Igor Stravinsky-Vaslav Nijinsky groundbreaking and even shocking in its day work of musical ballet, The Rite of Spring (Le Sacré du Printemps).

“I didn’t really want to do this, but I decided to use the opportunity to do something very different,” Iyer says. “I accepted the challenge and dodged the challenge at the same time. I decided to do a piece on the real rite of spring in Indian culture: the eight-day event called Holi. It’s known around the world and celebrates the meeting of the mortal-born woman Radhe and the teenage god Krishna, who gains a sentimental education from his older, flirtatious lover.”

After getting exposed to the Indian-American director/filmmaker Prashant Bhargava by way of his beautiful and compelling film Patang (The Kite), he brought him aboard to collaborate on the project. “I suggested shooting in Queens where there’s a huge Holi celebration, but Prashant wanted to go to India in the region where the holiday was born,” Iyer says.

Bhargava went to northern India in the city of Mathura, the mythic birthplace of Krishna. He filmed for eight days, capturing not only the colorful street festivities but also its raucous quality in an epic event that’s teeming with uninhibited freedom including sensual liberties and ceremonial purging. The actress Anna George takes the role of Radhe as she experiences a journey of both exultation and liberation.

Bhargava edited his film down to some 35 minutes, using Stravinsky’s music as a guideline. In the DVD’s liner notes, Bhargava wrote, “I started to sculpt the edit around the arc of Stravinsky’s chapters. To complete the work, I wanted to show Radhe not just adored and desired by her devotees, but also a woman on a transforming journey…Incorporating the sounds of the actual event, Vijay’s composition propels us to a state of renewal.”

Composing music that fit the events “was overwhelming,” Iyer says. “It took a year and was revised many times before its premiere. But since we borrowed from Stravinsky’s twelve-episode form, it made it easier for me. I like working in an episodic form with my compositions. They are like the long-form music I grew up with, which was albums. I digested my albums as a whole even though each song was an episode. I like writing songs that create a linear experience.”

Iyer has a new album on deck for ECM, Break Stuff, which features his longtime trio of bassist Stephan Crump and drummer Marcus Gilmore and will be released on February 10.

Iyer is excited and ready to take on new projects, some of which will no doubt be an outgrowth of his MacArthur prize. “I’m only a year into it,” he says, ‘but I’m already seeing it make a difference—giving me a larger span and increased visibility. People are paying attention and promoters like to hype winning the award. But one of the best outcomes is connecting with other MacArthur fellows who are from other fields beside music. I’ve spent time with a mathematician, who also teaches at Harvard and wants to collaborate on something. That’s what’s so great: intersecting outside my own discipline as the award cuts across so many fields—scholars, other artists. It all adds up to being a part of a new conversation.”


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