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The jazz player

New riff an Indian master of the original American music form produces jazz album of the year, reports Anirudh Bhattacharyya.See graphics

world Updated: Jan 10, 2010 01:41 IST
Anirudh Bhattacharyya

“No record defined the jazz landscape in 2009 quite like Historicity,” the Los Angeles Times wrote recently as the newspaper selected it as the year’s best jazz album.

The album is the latest from the Vijay Iyer Trio led by 38-year-old New York-based Indian-American pianist Vijay Iyer.

It also marks Iyer’s emergence as a major figure on the jazz landscape worldwide. The New York Times also chose Historicity as the best jazz album of 2009.

In an earlier review, a critic for the newspaper gushed, “Presto! Here is the great new jazz piano trio.” That trio, besides Iyer, includes Marcus Gilmore on drums and Stephan Crump on bass.

The album also received lavish praise from The Chicago Tribune, NPR and virtually every major US media outlet paying attention to the world of jazz. In fact, the annual jazz critics’ poll conducted by The Village Voice, a leading pop-culture tastemaker published from New York, also picked Historicity to top its chart.

In an interview, Vijay Iyer said of the list-topping habit of the album, “I was certainly surprised it ranked so high. You can never foresee this kind of thing. I tried to make an album I liked.”

It may actually be an album that is much more mainstream and accessible than most jazz offerings. It has an eclectic mix of covers, for instance.

The album features versions of Sri Lankan-Brit pop superstar MIA’s Galang, a Stevie Wonder number and even Somewhere from the classic musical West Side Story.

“Each one has its own kind of significance for me. I wanted to showcase what the Trio could do,” Iyer said.

The Galang cover, for example, is an attempt to recreate not only sounds from synthesizers and drum machines but also MIA’s playful, half-rapping vocal style while using real instruments — just piano, bass and drums.

While Iyer’s jazz offerings are fairly mainstream, his Indian American roots are evident in his performances with Tirtha, another trio which also includes Indian American musicians — the guitarist Prasanna and tabla player Nitin Mitta.

Iyer, who has just completed a European tour after Historicity was released in mid-October 2009, is currently occupied with a bunch of projects. During February and March, he’ll be touring with another important Indian-American jazz artist, alto saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa. And in April, he’ll be on the road with Tirtha.

Iyer also expects to release an album with Tirtha this year, while he plans a solo piano album and develops new material for an album with Mahanthappa.

And as an artist whose music is infused with politics, Iyer is also involved in a project with poet Mike Ladd focusing on veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and how they adjust to domestic life when they return to the US.