Vijay Iyer is what your mom wishes you could be; a MacArthur ‘genius’ Fellowship grant awardee for his work as a pianist, composer, bandleader, and electronic musician. He’s a writer of considerable quality, whether he’s writing a review of a Flying Lotus album or the music of jazz saxophonist Roscoe Mitchell, he’s also a professor of music at Harvard, along with a PHD holder in music cognition from UC Berkeley. Needless to say he’s a very smart guy, a very American artist and polymath who cares deeply about his artform, art and music in general, history, politics, and social justice and civil rights movements. To add on to that he’s also a very personable and productive guy, working with artists as diverse as rap group Dead Prez, the late, great, poet Amiri Baraka, and jazz improv legend Wadada Leo Smith, who he’s created his most recent album with “A Cosmic Rhythm With Each Stroke”, a reflection and tribute album to the Indian artist Nasreen Mohamadi, whose futuristic grids and geometric shapes floating in, often tan, open space, give the album the same kind of natural, free flowing, exploration of space, depth, and tone, achieved by Vijay and Wadada’s special musical compatibility. I talked to Vijay over the phone about this recent collaboration with Wadada Leo Smith, his connection to hip hop, “jazz” music, and the spirit of protest in American music.
OC Weekly (Sam Ribakoff) : “Your new album with Wadada Leo Smith is called a Cosmic Rhythm With Each Stroke, how did the collaborative process work with you and Wadada?
Vijay Iyer: I was commissioned to do this project by the Metropolitan Museum of Art based on the work of Nasreen Mohamedi, an abstract artists from India. At the same time I was thinking of doing a duo with Wadada for ECM Records. I’ve had a long standing relationship with Wadada going back to the 1990’s, and I’ve been making music with him since 2005, at least, and that had given us a foundation to work together, and I had also been in Wadada’s band before. In that band we would often end up playing duets. It would often just boil down to just the two of us together, so a way of making music emerged in those years. When we played it just sort of made sense. It didn’t take a lot of force, it just kind of happened naturally. We were both involved in these creative approaches to music making, by which I mean that which involves creativity in the moment of performance, which is to say relating and building in real time, which you can call improvisation, which is not to say that there’s no order, or no plan, but that you build it step by step in real time. So we came together to talk about Nasreen Mohamedi’s work, we talked about her life, and her work, and we talked about some general parameters we might work from. I built some kinds of textures and patterns on my laptop, you know, some electronic music. He developed his own score that he would refer to as kind of a stimulus, and then we brought it all together in the studio, in a day actually.
Yeah. In a way it kind of surprised us, because I guess it seemed like a kind of affirmation because it happened so naturally and organically.
You mentioned that you composed rough sketches of the songs on some music program, have you done that with other projects? Or is that something that felt right for this particular project?
Have you heard any of my other music?
Accelerando, Break Stuff, the Iraq and Afghan war veterans project with Mike Ladd [Holding It Down: The Veterans’ Dreams Project]…
Ok, so that’s a good example. That whole album has an electronic music backbone, it all sort of hangs on beats and patterns and textures that I create on my laptop, so yes, it’s been a part of my work for a long time.
You also produced a track for Das Racist, when they still existed.
Well I collaborate with Himanshu [Suri, AKA Heems], and one day I showed up to the studio where they [Das Racist] were goofing off, and we just sort of made this track together pretty spontaneously. Victor [Vazquez, AKA Kool A.D.] was banging out these rhythms on a drum pad, and I just started messing around with a synthesiser. Before I knew it they started recording and it became a song, or at least the foundation of a song. But we spent a couple of hours recording beats. Somewhere there’s a trove of them, but that’s the only one they used. More recently I formed a band with Himanshu called Thums Up, we performed at the Metropolitan Museum as a part of a larger residency project I was doing there.
The influence of hip hop seems to come up a lot in your work, at least to my ears, like some of Accelerando sounds like Mobb Deep instrumentals. Can you talk about hip hop’s influence on you, and why you got into making jazz music and not hip hop?
That’s a strange question, and you’re not the first person to ask me, and I’m trying to figure out why you guys ask me this question. I mean, the music I make, some people call it jazz some of the time… When you listen to that project I did with Mike [Ladd] [Holding it Down: The Veteran’s Dream Project], some of it sounds like hip hop, and it was basically made how hip hop is made, with beats from a laptop and people rhyme or do lyrics over them. It’s really not that different. I mean the thing is hip hop is made of two different things, in terms of the music, what you can do with a drum machine, which is what you use if you don’t have drums, the other major component is samples of other people playing music, so it’s actually just composed of sounds of people playing music, so then to turn everything inside out and backwards and say that I could have been doing hip hop instead, it’s the same ingredients… I don’t know, to me these labels are a little bit arbitrary, and it’s used to sell, and it doesn’t make a lot of sense when you get down to it, because we’re all peeling the same stuff. You know, so like on that album Accelerando, there’s a song that we covered called “The Star of a Story” by the band Heatwave, that original song by Heatwave was sampled by A Tribe Called Quest, in the song whose name escapes me right now.
“Verses From The Abstract.”
Right. I grew up in what was, I guess the front end of the hip hop generation, to me there was always continuity in what came before. Sampling music from the 60’s and 70’s, and building with the tools of the era, the 80’s. So it’s new really that far away. I find myself playing the piano at clubs, or concert halls, or festivals, or whatever we do, including collaborating with hop artists. I also worked with Dead Prez a little bit, at one of the beats we made got to David Banner. I’m distantly linked to a lot of different spheres, and that’s just a part of making music in the city I think. I’m a part of a lot of different communities.
Do you think your albums get relegated unfairly into the jazz category then? Do you think they’d have a wider appeal if they weren’t marketed that way?
Well what do you think?
I never use the word jazz. John Coltrane also never used the word jazz. Somebody asked him in an interview once and he said “jazz is the word they use to sell our music. To me that word does not exist.” So that’s basically the tradition, you just make music, put it out to the world, and especially in this moment we’re in where record labels are not the whole story, it’s really about who we’re in dialogue with, what kind of audiences, what kind of listeners, what kind of communities, and that defines us more than any kind of label, because people don’t really use, or need these labels so much anymore. I mean, certainly musicians have no use for labels, it’s not like we create, or obey them, we just make the music we make, with the people we make it with, for the people we make it for. I’ve been lucky to have a relatively wide audience. I play for tens of thousands of people per year, I sell tens of thousands of albums, it’s not millions, but it’s more than most people, in any field, or genre, or era. I’m not saying that to brag, I say it because the kind of myth we have that music of this kind is in danger, or is obscure, is false. I tour around the world constantly, I play for thousands of people, you know? I’ve been doing this for over 20 years, there aren’t many pop artists, or hip hop artists that get to do music for 20 years. I get to have a lifelong creative, and very active, musical life, and that’s more important to me than selling a million records, or being a household name.
Recently, in the last couple of years, there’s been an upsurge in interest, especially among young people, in music that could be called jazz, like Kamasi Washington album, or Robert Glasper, or Christian Scott, or Kendrick Lamar’s most recent album, and especially that music’s connection and dialogue with activist and civil rights movements, and it seemed like that spirit was missing from that genre for awhile, or at least it’s more popular artists.
Vijay: Have you felt that it was missing from the music?
Yes… but honestly I’m too young to have been engaged with it for more than the past decade and some odd years
Yeah, I noticed that. People make these kinds of pronouncements without really doing their research. You’re not the first, you probably won’t be the last. People say that stuff all the time. African-American music over the past couple of hundreds of years has always been engaged in social justice work, it’s always been asking those questions, always been telling those stories, so the artists you mentioned are the latest in a very long series, and the history of jazz is a part of that, and soul, and blues, and the history of hip hop. There’s always been very political content, very outspoken content, in hip hop, there’s always been that. We latch onto individuals as if they were extensions, but they’re actually a part of a tradition.
Wadada Leo Smith is a part of that tradition too. He released an album called Ten Freedom Summers that was shortlisted for the Pulitzer Prize, and it’s about the civil rights movement. He was born and raised in Mississippi, in rural Mississippi, and he grew up only a couple of miles away from where Emmett Till was killed, and he was basically the same age as Emmett Till. That memory stayed with him. The experience of living in segregation in pre-civil rights America, and then witnessing as a boy the civil rights movement, and then growing old in the post civil rights era, he makes work that’s dealing with that. It’s part of the backbone of American music, music of protest, and music that speaks of the times, and that’s true in a sense that transcends genre.
Part of the thing that makes music political is the circumstances of how you’re making it, who you’re making it, who you’re making it for. It’s not just about a song title, or the lyrics, it’s about all the other details that go into the feeling of it, and into the sound of it, so I would say that all of my music is political, but I would also say that all music is political in it’s own way, sometime it doesn’t acknowledge that it is, it could be political in the sense that it’s reinforcing the status quo, which a lot of music does, a lot of music that’s on the radio, that’s why it’s there. Then there’s music that’s supposed to be kind of transformational, and sometime that comes from the artist, maybe the artist is trying to transform himself, or herself, or maybe they’re trying to have some sort of transformative impact on his or her community. Then we think of musicians like Nina Simone, or Marvin Gaye, or Public Enemy, or Kendrick Lamar, and it’s not just because they made political songs, it’s because they served as examples, and a reminder, of what’s right outside the door.
Vijay Iyer and Wadada Leo Smith will be performing at Clayes Performing Arts Center, Meng Concert Hall, on the campus of Cal State Fullerton on 4/16