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Vijay Iyer: America’s jazz artists with an Indian touch

The audience at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill had never experienced anything like it. At the end of a multimedia musical performance, one of the performers showered a fistful of gulal on the audience.

brunch Updated: Apr 20, 2013 16:00 IST
Anirudh Bhattacharyya
Anirudh Bhattacharyya
Hindustan Times
american jazz,indian,North Carolina

The audience at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill had never experienced anything like it. At the end of a multimedia musical performance, one of the performers showered a fistful of gulal on the audience. That was filmmaker Prashant Bhargava, who went on to smear some of the magenta powder on his collaborator, 41-year-old musician Vijay Iyer.

It was a fitting finale to the world premiere performance of Radhe Radhe: Rites of Holi, performed, aptly enough, on Holi, to an audience of nearly a thousand.

If it was an unusual offering by an Indian American artist, Iyer has been there, done that. The New York City based pianist and composer, and Grammy nominee, has emerged as a major jazz artist in recent years. But he is making a unique mark in the quintessentially American tradition, in the latest instance bringing an Indian flavour to the celebration of a landmark composition in Western classical music.

Photo: Craig Marsden/Prashant Bhar

The Radhe Radhe project came about as 15 works were commissioned to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Russian composer Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. Says Iyer, “Most of the pieces are in the European classical vein. I thought it would be interesting to open the conversation a little bit more, so that it doesn’t just become all about Europe because springtime is a universal experience and different cultures have different ways of celebrating it. For us, the most obvious point of reference is Holi.”

He enlisted filmmaker Bhargava, who has won acclaim in the past for his film Patang, which captures the magic of the kite festival on Ahmedabad. The result was the multimedia experience, which had its world premiere on the day of Holi.

Working with what he describes as a “a bit of an irregular ensemble”, Iyer delivered an eclectic blend, somewhat like the multicoloured mix of Holi’s hues that Bhargava depicted on screen, with footage of celebrations in Mathura. As Iyer says of the composition: “Some of it sounds like contemporary Western classical music, some of it sounds like folk music, bhajans, some of it has electronic textures in it with a lot of drumming.”

Radhe Radhe is just the latest part of a resume that Iyer has built up over nearly two decades as a musician. But his journey into music was hardly linear.

His Tamil parents, Sita and Y Raghunathan, were among the first wave of professional immigrants into America in the 1960s. About seven years after their arrival, he was born in Albany, the capital of New York State. And it was in upstate New York that he was raised – in Rochester.

His father was in the pharmaceuticals industry and his mother inhabited the corporate world. Unusually, for an Indian-American child, Vijay Iyer found his groove in music. His first formal instrument was the violin, but by age six, he had taken to the piano, partly to annoy his elder sister who was taking piano lessons.

The early strains of Carnatic music wafting through his home have stayed with him, though he also appreciates popular music, especially composers like Ilyaraja and, obviously, AR Rahman.

Photo: Jimmy Katz

Iyer later found himself in the Ivy League, graduating in Mathematics and Physics from Yale University, before completing a PhD from the University of California at Berkeley. “I was able to create my own interdisciplinary doctoral programme,” he says, referring to that doctorate in music and cognitive science, a subject he continues to write and lecture about. That allows him “point of entry into a lot of different conversations, in the sciences and humanities.”

Iyer released the first of his album in 1995 – Memorophilia. He moved to New York City, married and his career in jazz was fully launched.

Iyer’s latest album is Accelerando, released last year, the work of the trio that this pianist fronts, along with bassist Stephan Crump and drummer Marcus Gilmore.

In its International Critics Poll last year, Down Beat magazine gave top honours to Iyer in an unprecedented five categories, including Jazz Artist of the Year, Jazz Album of the Year, Jazz Group of the Year and Pianist of the Year.

Accelerando, Iyer explains, is an Italian adverb that means “while getting faster.” The album is infectious in its buoyancy. “Actually all of these pieces have a sort of dance orientation to them. Some of them are covers of songs that were made for that purpose,” Iyer says.

Among the covers was one of Michael Jackson’s Human Nature. That would seem an odd choice for a work of jazz, but with Iyer’s track record, hardly a surprise. The Vijay Iyer Trio’s 2009 album, Historicity, for instance, featured a version of Tamil-Brit pop star MIA’s Galang. As Iyer explains, “I grew up with Michael Jackson’s music and when MIA hit the scene, I was very inspired by her. So, I’m just like anybody else. Perhaps, it’s more that you don’t often see piano trios taking stuff like that on.”

Historicity was an album that had reviewed searching for superlatives. The Los Angeles Times raved: “No record defined the jazz landscape in 2009 quite like Historicity”, while the New York Times chose it as the best jazz album of that year. It also bagged a Grammy nomination, and though it didn’t win, it marked a milestone in Iyer’s emergence on the jazz scene.

Which means he’s in demand, for concerts in Europe to being appointed director of the Banff International Workshop in Jazz and Creative Music at The Banff Centre in Canada. Given a hectic schedule, Iyer is “afraid to count” the number of days he toured in 2012 (“About 150,” he figures).

In between he tries to make time to be home in New York City, especially since he has an eight-year-old daughter.

He hasn’t quite made it to India yet. In December 2012, an opportunity to perform in Goa fell through because it “just didn’t work out logistically.” It has been a while, almost a decade, since Iyer last visited India. His last performance in India was in Chennai, in 2000, when he played with Steve Coleman and Umayalpuram Sivaraman.But he collaborates frequently with Indian musicians (see box). He often visited India earlier, traversing Chennai, Mumbai, Hyderabad, Delhi, Bangalore, “visiting various relatives and seeing the sites.”

As he prepares to play at that celebrated New York venue, Carnegie Hall in late April, his first time there as a headliner, his career is taking cues from the titles of his recent works, be it the colorful rites of Holi, or forward momentum.

Desi Beats
Radhe Radhe: Multimedia performance based on the celebration of Holi, with Prashant Bhargava. (2013)
Tirtha: A trio featuring guitarist Prasanna and tabla player Nitin Mitta. (2011)
Raw Materials: With Indian-American saxophone virtuoso Rudresh Mahanthappa. (2006)
Talvin Singh: Appeared on the Indo-Brit composer’s debut album OK. (1998)
Himanshu Suri: Working on a project with this New Yorker and frontman of the alternative hip hop act, Das Racist. (2013)
Manodharma: A trio with Iyer, Mahanthappa and mridangam maestro Trichy Sankaran. (2001)
Ustad Shujaat Khan and Karsh Kale: Live performance with the sitar maestro and the cutting-edge composer. (2009)

Quick Tempo
First week of April: Performances at Oberlin College, Ohio and Purdue University, Indiana. On to the Yale Jazz Festival.
Second week: Performances and workshops in San Francisco
Third week: Concert at George Washington University.
Fourth week: Headlining at the Zankel Hall, in the celebrated New York concert venue, Carnegie Hall.
And from there: Three week intensive workshop involving nearly 100 people at The Banff Centre in Canada, where he is director of the Banff International Workshop in Jazz and Creative Music.

From HT Brunch, April 21
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First Published: Apr 19, 2013 15:07 IST