Vijay Iyer: The Toast Of The Jazz Internet

This week, NPR Music is streaming the entirety of Historicity, the new album by pianist and composer Vijay Iyer. Hear the full album preview as part of our Exclusive First Listen series.

Vijay Iyer. i

How you know you've made it in jazz: you get your photo taken by Jimmy Katz. Jimmy Katz hide caption

itoggle caption Jimmy Katz
Vijay Iyer.

How you know you've made it in jazz: you get your photo taken by Jimmy Katz.

Jimmy Katz

One of the most personally pleasing discoveries of Jazz Now was the extent to which people have embraced Vijay Iyer. Despite a reputation as a "difficult" artist (in terms of his music), Iyer was mentioned third-most by poll participants, only behind heavy-hitters Brad Mehldau and The Bad Plus. I know I listed his new trio album, Historicity, as an honorable mention; that record got a total of 4.5 tallies.

The album hasn't even come out yet in the U.S.

Critics, radio people and other paid jazz-obsessives like me received advance press copies, however. And the extent to which we almost universally really dig what Iyer is doing is remarkable. (Even, uh, in spite of itself.) In the New York Times, Ben Ratliff articulated what I think many of us were beginning to feel: "Presto! Here is the great new jazz piano trio."

Iyer received a total of 8.5 Jazz Now tallies — meaning at least four people nominated other works of his. Two votes went to his collaboration with spoken-word artist Mike Ladd, in what language? (2003); other nods went to earlier albums like Tragicomic (2008) and Panoptic Modes (2001). All that raw data lives here. Those votes mean that people — whether they've heard Historicity or not — have been checking out his back catalog too.

Here's another corollary: Iyer's music, challenging as it can be, is still seen as accessible enough for those with more straight-ahead tastes. On the flip side, among those more aligned with the process-based and experimental in improvised music, Iyer's work has lost none of its legitimacy, even when he's playing covers more than originals. Plus, Jazz Now being what it is, people from all walks of jazz even feel comfortable using it as an introduction to modern jazz.

So it's one big Vijay Iyer love-fest in the jazz world right now, and I imagine the buzz will surge again once the record actually drops. Wonderful for Vijay, I say — he certainly deserves it.

Even so: the best part is that the best part is likely yet to come. One of my early drafts for the First Listen description that I wrote quoted a 2007 Iyer essay: "When I hear mastery without risk," he wrote, "I feel ripped off." Since reading that piece, I have come to perceive self-challenge throughout Iyer's oeuvre. If I intuit correctly, Iyer won't be content to keep playing this material over and over again. He'll push himself and his bands to keep trying not only new tunes, but new means and purposes for improvised music itself. And I already can't wait for when he puts it all together again — as he has on Historicity.

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Preview all of Vijay Iyer's new album, Historicity, streaming on demand at NPR Music.

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