Before & After: Vijay Iyer

© Larry Appelbaum

At the 2007 Vancouver Jazz Festival, Vijay Iyer gave an afternoon workshop on his compositional approach and took a break before his evening concert to listen to some music and share his comments.



1. Thelonious Monk
“It Don’t Mean A Thing If It Ain’t Got That Swing” (from Plays Duke Ellington, Riverside). Monk, piano; Oscar Pettiford, bass; Kenny Clarke, drums. Recorded in 1955, reissued 2007.

Before: [immediately] Well, it’s Monk playing Duke. You know, Monk is my hero. He’s the biggest influence of anybody on my playing, on my music. When I was figuring out how to play piano and when I first got into jazz, it took me a while to find Monk. Somebody gave me a Red Garland record and a Keith Jarrett record, and from those two I triangulated to Herbie [Hancock] and from there I worked my way back. And when I found these Monk records – the first one I found was Live In Tokyo – I was totally mystified by what he was doing. It seemed so empty but it didn’t seem like it needed anything else either. So I really was amazed that he could strip things down to the essentials at that level. Everything he did was so deliberate, as if it’s the result of many years of work. And that registered with me, as someone who was searching for things on the piano myself, like trying to find myself inside of it, inside the sound of this instrument. He really developed his own approach to harmony and composition. His sense of rhythm was so unique and so personal and his sound is so powerful and rich and complex. There’s a pungency to his sound and choices of notes and chords and there’s a playfulness and a certain insistence in his sense of rhythm. There’s something really searching in his music and there’s a lot of conviction.

Which are your favorite Monk groups or Monk records?

Well, you know I always resonated with the stuff from the 60s, especially the live stuff like Live at the It Club, because the groove is so happening. It’s so buoyant and so infectious and powerful. In a way, that group ended up being a sort of template for my group. But also the stuff with Coltrane, definitely.

2. Rez Abbasi
“You People” (from Bazaar, Zoho) Abbasi, guitar; Gary Versace, organ; Danny Weiss, drums, tabla; Gautam Siram, mridnagam. Recorded in 2005.

Before: [After listening to the head] Is this Rez? I thought so. This must be his group with Gary Versace and Dan Weiss. Is this from his new record?

After: I’ve only gotten to know him over the last year or two. His music is really happening. Rez has a timbral vocabulary that you can link to other guitarists, like Metheny, but he has other colors that he draws from that are reminiscent of Indian music. And also the level of engagement with the rhythmic techniques from India, just the way he interacted with the tabla in the beginning, that narrowed it down pretty quick. He’s making authentic music that’s about who he is. It’s so accomplished in so many ways: in terms of sheer chops and ideas and interactivity and flow and creativity with improvising ideas. And the songs are really sophisticated and interesting. There’s a lot to sink your teeth into here.

3. Keith Jarrett
“Part 4” (from Radiance, ECM). Jarrett, piano. Recorded in 2002.

Before: [chuckles]  I liked it. I liked it a lot. The moment when I chuckled is when it became technically way over the top, when the guy was playing these fast parallel octaves and super intricate melodic ideas in both hands like that. I’m going to go out on a limb and say it’s Keith. Am I right? Yeah, he can do anything he wants, and he does and I respect it. Not everything he does is my cup of tea but I never have anything but respect for it. It’s so extremely accomplished it’s kind of almost punishing to listen to, as a pianist. This is very visceral physical interaction with the keyboard. Not to say that that’s not musical. In fact that’s very musical, actually. It’s really gestural. You hear a lot of his body in the music, and it’s really contrapuntal. It’s not really tonal and I wouldn’t even say it’s exactly harmonic in terms of the way he’s improvising. It’s more dealing with shapes and at a totally high level of technical accomplishment. And there’s a unity of between thought and action. That’s what he’s a master of and always has been.

After: Yeah, I don’t have that record but that’s the one that people have been telling me to get.

4. Kenny Werner
“Lo’s Garden” (from Lawn Chair Society, Blue Note). Werner, piano, keyboards, computer; Dave Douglas, trumpet; Chris Potter, bass clarinet; Scott Colley, bass; Brian Blade, drums. Released 2007.

Before: [listens intently with occasional chuckles] Wow. I have no idea who it is. I like it. The pianist is doing a lot of these kind of extreme filigreed runs, a lot of, like, harmonic surprises. Someone spent a lot of time on the production of this too, the mix. And there’s electronics going on and a cloud of reverb around the piano that follows it wherever it goes. Something about the way the pianist plays, his or her relationship to the time is kind of loose and ambiguous, which is cool. The trumpet and bass clarinet played an intricate unison line that came in and out and then the pianist sliced across it all.  It’s pretty spacey actually. It’s a bold statement, and I admired that. The shapes and the progressions in terms of  the pitch content in what the pianist was playing was surprising. It had its own inner logic. In terms of the groove there was a floating quality, sort of tumbling through the rhythm. I’m stumped. I’d be curious to hear what else this pianist does.

After: Oh, Kenny. I totally didn’t expect that. At first I thought this was some Europeans. I haven’t heard this record. That was cool. Interesting. I should check this out in more detail. When I was in college I saw him with Jane Ira Bloom, I was 18 or something. I remember being amazed by Kenny. He did this rhapsodic interpretation of different songs and I remember him having this kind of devastating prowess that I was amazed by. I know he’s got this meditative practice that informs what he does.

5. Roscoe Mitchell
“Tnoona” (from Quartet, Sackville). Mitchell, saxophones; Muhal Richard Abrams, piano; George Lewis, trombone; Spencer Barefield, guitar. Recorded in 1975.

Before: I was going to start my set this way [laughter]. Well, it sort of has the shape of one of Roscoe’s pieces. I think that’s who it is. He’s not bullshitting [laughter]. I’ve had the pleasure of working with him and being taken through his process. Is this from the new ECM record? Maybe it’s from another Note Factory record I don’t know. I’m hearing some people on there I don’t know. Unless this is a really early record of his. The shape of it, you know, it takes its time. You really have to commit as a listener as much as he does as a player. And it really is process music in its profound sense. It turns you into a different person. I remember the first time I saw Roscoe, it really changed my life. I think it was the fall of ’92 and Gerald Oshita had just passed away and there was a memorial service for him. Roscoe came and played about 20 minutes of solo saxophone and he created this piece out of almost nothing but it was so unarguable at the same time. He spent most of the time just passing air through his instrument without making a tone, he was making all these other kind of air sounds and sort of near sounds. It was like he was finding all these ways to not make a sound on the saxophone.  And it completely changed my sense of what music can be and how one can make music from what’s available to you, like from whatever is around and what you have at your disposal to create this extremely profound statement about the human condition. That’s really what it is. Then about 10 years later I found myself on the bandstand with him and watching him do something similar. It was like, ok, I’m going to stop playing and listen to this [laughter]. We’ve had a lot of interesting conversations. I’ve learned so much from working with him.

After: Ah, that’s Muhal. I should have known that was George doing those mouthpiece things. I should know this one. I don’t have enough of his Sackville things. He blows me away every time I hear him. He’s unbelievable as a soloist, in terms of someone who comes up with ideas and who shapes music in this profound way. He’s dealing really hard, at the highest level. It’s so inspiring. He’s a visionary. He gave me this whole new take on my relationship to the instrument. I need to get this one.

6. Andrew Hill
“Flight 19” (from Point of Departure, Blue Note). Hill, piano; Kenny Dorham, trumpet; Eric Dolphy, bass clarinet; Joe Henderson, tenor saxophone; Richard Davis, bass; Tony Williams, drums. Recorded in 1964.

This is from Point of Departure. Andrew, Dolphy, Joe Henderson, Kenny Dorham, Tony and Richard Davis. What’s this called? I can’t remember what the song is called but I know this record very well. I think this is the second CD I bought. I love everything about it, the writing the playing, the way it showcases the ensemble, all the real creative approaches to improvising, the looseness of form. Andrew’s one of my heroes too, he’s a towering influence on me. There’s nothing about this that doesn’t inspire me. I get something new out of it every time. I got to know him a bit in the 90s before I moved to NY, and more so after I moved to NY. He was a real important person in my life.  Tony is very sparse on this record. His playing is very contained but in a really surprising way, you know? Like his swells on the snare drum there. I love it. I love everything about it. I could go on and on about this record alone. I also like the way Andrew relates to the rhythm. It’s so mysterious. He played with ambiguity of time. It’s as if you hear his hands and arms but you hear it in time, moving in time. The first piece on there, “Refuge,” I transcribed. There’s something mysterious about the harmonies in that piece and the voicings in the way he arranged it for the horns. There’s nothing traditional about his choices. There’s his solo stuff from the 70s that I could listen to all day. There’s one called Verona Rag, which was a huge influence on me.

7. Irène Schweizer & Andrew Cyrille
“A Monkish Encore” (from Irène Schweizer & Andrew Cyrille, Intakt)

Before: [listens intently with occasional chuckles] Well. I have a few guesses. Initially I thought it was early Cecil but then I knew it wasn’t. Then I thought it might have been Jason [Moran], cause it seemed like someone who had a certain historical grasp, and still is playful and really hearing at a high level. Who could that be? I wonder if it was Misha? It was kinda wild but there was a lot of care in the choices.

After: Oh wow! Ok. Cool. I should deal with Irène a bit more. I know who she is, I don’t know her music so well. I loved it. Really nice.

8. Joe Lovano and Hank Jones
“Budo” (from Kids, Blue Note). Lovano, tenor saxophone; Jones, piano. Recorded in 2006.

Before: It’s a Bud [Powell] tune. I’m trying to figure out if it’s Bud. I think it’s Hank. Is this Hank with Joe Lovano?

After: You know, he’s a tough one for me to spot, but he’s so polished and everything sounds so right. He has this real lightness in his playing that I love. I have this great duo record of him with Abby Lincoln that I listen to all the time, actually my 2-year old daughter loves it and we listen to it all the time, like literally a few times a day [laughter]. So I’ve come to know what he sounds like in a duo context. But often when he’s in a band, it’ll kind of slip by me. Hank is a master. He’s one of the greatest performers alive. Joe is a master too. He’s such an accomplished musician. He’s got a full-bodied sound and impeccable time.

10. Björk
“I See Who You Are” (from volta, Atlantic). Björk, vocal, brass arrangment; Min Ziao-Fen, pipa; Chris Corsano, percussion; Mark Bell, beats and keyboards; brass section. Released in 2007.

Ha ha! It’s Björk. This must be her new record, I haven’t heard it yet, but that’s Min Xiao-Fen, and I know she’s on the record. Am I right? I don’t listen to Björk
as much as a lot of other people do. You know, I admire her and I really like her choices in terms of producers and the way she puts the music together. It’s intensely creative. [listens to Min’s playing] That’s funny. Yeah. That’s cool. I didn’t know she had this much space on the record. I’ve actually worked with Min Xiao-Fen several times, first in the Bay area and then later with Steve Coleman. Björk makes really creative pop music, but her singing is largely improvised, it sounds to me. You really feel like she’s in the moment with her phrasing. I tend to max out on it after a while cause it’s a little bit too ecstatic for me. It’s so blissful that you can only have it in small doses. It’s funny; so many people in jazz imagine that they’re eclectic because they listen to Björk and Radiohead and Debussy. And to me, there’s such a world of music out there. Why draw the line anywhere? There’s so much to learn about humanity by listening. So there’s no reason to stop listening.

Your favorite recordings?

Money Jungle. And this album by Abida Parveen, who’s a qawwali singer from Pakistan. It’s called The Incomparable. We had it running all day when my daughter was born.

She’s also an ecstatic singer.

Yes, but it’s not such a construction. Because with Björk’s music, so much has gone into the construction of that sensation.

Do you find it contrived?

I find it a little precious sometimes, I guess. I really respect and like it, but I can’t take a lot of it. It’s very self-aware. And with Abida Parveen’s music, it’s divine music. It’s songs about the divine, and there’s an authenticity to the emotion there that you can’t deny.

I wonder if one’s perceptions of music are colored or biased by the musician’s popularity?  The fact that everyone cites Björk can lead to a reactionary…

Yeah, one of my problems is that if I see everybody liking something then I find something wrong with it. That’s just who I am. [laughter]

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