Jazz, like most any other genre, has more than a fair share of purists. Despite the fact that the style itself was born out of the intermingling of different cultures and music, there always seems to be someone shouting about what is and isn’t jazz. For Vijay Iyer, attempting to enforce such limitations completely misses the point. “It’s not new for people to figure out how to make music together; that’s not new at all,” he says. “And the fact is that even this music that’s been called jazz has always been in dialogue with other musics that were called something else.”
Over the course of 23 albums, Iyer has proven that it’s not only possible but natural for a jazz musician to be grounded in the music’s culture and traditions while still pushing for technicality and innovation. In 2015, his trio–consisting of bassist/ longtime collaborator Stephan Crump and forward-thinking drum wizard Marcus Gilmore–gained international acclaim for their album Break Stuff (no, it has nothing to do with that nu metal atrocity called Limp Bizkit).
The album features covers of Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane tunes, as well as original compositions such as “Hood,” which was named for the Detroit techno producer, Robert Hood. Thus, Break Stuff, with all of its intricacies, interlocking rhythms, and syncopations, is a testament to jazz’s ability to evolve and thrive with other genres like hip-hop and EDM.
Iyer, who holds an undergraduate degree in mathematics and physics as well as a Ph.D in music cognition, maintains that his emphasis on rhythm comes from culture, rather than any sort of platonic ideals. When he was in the Ph.D program in the ’90s, he rustled some feathers in the music cognition field by arguing that music is “embodied action. That’s not just a made up theory; it’s just a fact. Music is made by us doing things,” he explains. “So it means that it’s of the kind of rhythmic profile of our bodies. It sounds like human action because it is. So to prioritize that, I guess I could say, was somewhat informed by my dissertation, but my dissertation in turn was informed by my life in music. It came to me through playing and through making music with other people and for other people and among other people.”
This Saturday, the Vijay Iyer Trio makes their debut at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts to kick off the 2019-2020 jazz season. The trio welcomed a new drummer, Jeremy Dutton, a few years ago, but the group’s dynamic has essentially remained unchanged, as the young virtuoso shares an obvious connection with his two counterparts. His playing is deliberate, tactful and expressive, especially considering the context of the trio.
“Our function is generally as the rhythm section to be always playing, regardless of who’s soloing,” Iyer explains. “A Turkish journalist said, ‘Instead of soloing, it’s like you guys are trio-ing,’ which I thought was a great way to put it. It’s kind of like, basically, all three of us are always creating, always bringing ideas into the group interplay and supporting each other.”
The trio has a repertoire of standards and original compositions, but there’s no telling what might unfold at any given performance. As the three musicians improvise and develop each moment together, the possibilities seem to be endless.
“The main thing is like, we get on stage and we take a trip through everything we know,” Iyer says. “And it’s not just a random walk; it’s actually meant to build a sort of arc, and I guess I mean that in both senses: both in the sense of like this large shape that has some sort of integrity and resolution to it but also an arc in the sense of a vehicle that you might escape in. So it’s kind of like, ‘Okay let’s all ride this thing together.’ And I don’t just mean the three of us; I mean everyone in the room. We’re all going to ride this thing together and get somewhere. So whatever we play, that’s the actual goal. It almost doesn’t matter what we play.”
The Vijay Iyer Trio at Segerstrom Center for the Arts, Samueli Theater, 600 Town Center Dr., Costa Mesa, (714) 556-2787; scfta.org. Two Performances Sat., 7 p.m. & 9 p.m. $39-$79. All ages.