At Ojai Music Festival, Vijay Iyer Showcases Improvisation As music director for the distinguished festival, Iyer united jazz and classical artists with a passion for spontaneity.
Barbara Rigon/Ojai Music Festival
Vijay Iyer was music director of the Ojai Music Festival this year.
Barbara Rigon/Ojai Music Festival

Jazz Night In America: The Radio Program

At Ojai Music Festival, Vijay Iyer Showcases ImprovisationWBGO

At Ojai Music Festival, Vijay Iyer Showcases Improvisation

  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/558549535/559001615" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">

In this century, few artists in or around jazz have been closer to the whirling center of the action than Vijay Iyer. A pianist, composer, bandleader and educator — with accolades to show for each of those — Iyer is also an inspired consolidator, someone who brings divergent strands of theory and practice into dialogue. He does it all the time, but he really brought the idea into focus this past June, over four busy days in Southern California's ruggedly beautiful Ojai Valley.

This was in Iyer's capacity as music director of the Ojai Music Festival, whose distinguished history stretches back more than 70 years. Ojai, as everyone calls it, has a reputation for boundary-pushing classical music: the provenance of Aaron Copland, Pierre Boulez and Igor Stravinsky, each of whom served multiple terms as music director.

Before Iyer, though, there had never been a curatorial presence at Ojai so steeped in the art and science of improvisation. His appointment qualified as a landmark, and he was determined to make the moment count. (The Los Angeles Times assigned critics from both classical and jazz disciplines. Chris Barton, the jazz reviewer, did a fine job of capturing the enlightened sprawl.)

Iyer wasn't interested in "jazzing up Ojai," whatever that might mean. ("Jazz," as a prescriptive label, generally holds no more water for him than "classical" — or any other term of genre, for that matter.) What he was seeking, instead, was a colloquy between artists firmly rooted in orchestral or chamber traditions and others, like him, who combine that language with more spontaneous protocols.

His festival program felt righteous, boundless, often supercharged. Repertoire by Bach and Stravinsky shared airspace with new chamber works by flutist Nicole Mitchell. Iyer performed a riveting duo set with one of his mentors, trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith. The trio, comprising three additional mentors — pianist Muhal Richard Abrams, saxophonist Roscoe Mitchell and trombonist/electronic artist George Lewis, all elder statesmen in the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians — performed an hourlong concert free of any premeditated impulse, let alone a written score.

During a rare pocket of daylight in his festival schedule, Iyer said he'd been inspired to include "all these people that I respect and admire and have learned from... people who are generous and listen to the world — you hear that reflected in the work they do."

Crucially, that invitation extended to artists in Iyer's immediate orbit, like the percussionist and composer Tyshawn Sorey, who incidentally just became a MacArthur Fellow, joining a rarefied circle that also includes Iyer and Lewis. (If you followed Sorey at Ojai, leading a Butch Morris-style "conduction" one moment and commandeering an orchestral percussion rig the next, you couldn't have been surprised by that turn of events.)

YouTube

Another irrepressible creative force, Jen Shyu, presented Solo Rites: Seven Breaths, a transfixing performance piece featuring her pliable voice, a series of choreographic movements, and a small array of folk instruments. And I'll not soon forget the pressurized quiet that followed the final moments of Yet Unheard, a searing orchestral piece by Courtney Bryan that you might characterize — imprecisely, but with reason — as a Black Lives Matter oratorio.

Iyer presented a great deal of his own music at Ojai, too — including the world premiere of Trouble, a violin concerto composed for Jennifer Koh. It shared a concert program with Emergence, a suite for orchestra and improvising trio (Iyer, Sorey and bassist Stephan Crump). Iyer also performed brilliantly with the Brentano Quartet and, as a climax and valedictory capstone, with his own combustible sextet.

Jazz Night in America caught almost every head-spinning set at Ojai, submitting to the flow and logic of the music on its own terms. In this episode of our radio show, we'll take you there. Along with Iyer's sextet — giving the first public preview of its justly acclaimed new album, Far From Over — this episode spotlights Trouble, taking a look at the challenges and questions that went into its creation.

Iyer and Koh share their abundant insights, as do Lewis and violinist Mark Steinberg, of the Brentano Quartet. And flutist Claire Chase, founder of the International Contemporary Ensemble (and yet another MacArthur "genius"), helps us understand why the energies of a festival like this present a necessary corrective to the classical orthodoxy. They're a shot in the arm for the jazz establishment, too. The music, in its articulate urgency, holds all the evidence we need.

[+] read more[-] less

More From Jazz

Bassist Dave Holland and tabla player Zakir Hussain perform as part of Crosscurrents at Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York City. Lawrence Sumulong/Jazz at Lincoln Center hide caption

toggle caption Lawrence Sumulong/Jazz at Lincoln Center

Crosscurrents: Converging Jazz And Indian Classical Music

WBGO and Jazz At Lincoln Center

Explore the influence of Indian music on the jazz and rock scenes of the '60s with tabla virtuoso Zakir Hussain, prolific bassist Dave Holland and their international ensemble, Crosscurrents.

Harold Mabern Alan Nahigian/Courtesy of the artist hide caption

toggle caption Alan Nahigian/Courtesy of the artist

At The Helm: Harold Mabern, Stalwart Accompanist, At 82

WBGO and Jazz At Lincoln Center

Harold Mabern has been one of jazz's most consistent accompanists over the last 60 years. In this episode of Jazz Night in America, we explore some of that history with him.

At The Helm: Harold Mabern, Stalwart Accompanist, At 82

  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/614517884/614520719" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">

Barbara Cook performs at the 2014 New York Festival of Song at Carnegie Hall on April 28, 2014 in New York City. Laura Cavanaugh/Getty Images hide caption

toggle caption Laura Cavanaugh/Getty Images

Barbara Cook On Piano Jazz

This week's Piano Jazz from 1998 remembers lyric soprano Barbara Cook, a Broadway star, staple of the New York cabaret scene and favorite of audiences around the world.

Barbara Cook On Piano Jazz

  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/614380119/614428595" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">

American jazz trumpeter Harry 'Sweets' Edison performs in 1991. David Redfern/Getty Images hide caption

toggle caption David Redfern/Getty Images

Harry 'Sweets' Edison On Piano Jazz

On this episode of Piano Jazz from 1999, broadcast just months before Edison died, the legendary jazz trumpeter joins Marian McPartland for a few classics and an original.

Harry 'Sweets' Edison On Piano Jazz

  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/612283249/612285662" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
George Kopp/Courtesy of the artist

Virginia Mayhew On Piano Jazz

Saxophonist, composer and bandleader Virginia Mayhew joins forces with Marian McPartland to perform "All the Things You Are" and "Body and Soul" on this 1998 episode of Piano Jazz.

Virginia Mayhew On Piano Jazz

  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/610083723/610086310" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">

Joanne Brackeen and Jason Moran at NPR's Studio One in Washington, D.C. Eric Lee/NPR hide caption

toggle caption Eric Lee/NPR

Jazz Giants Take The Stage At The NEA Jazz Masters Listening Party

WBGO and Jazz At Lincoln Center

Jason Moran sat down with the NEA Jazz Masters to talk about their careers and listen to music that played important roles in their lives.

Jazz Giants Take The Stage At The NEA Jazz Masters Listening Party

  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/608093895/608239849" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">

This 1988 episode of Piano Jazz features Brazilian pianist, composer, and vocalist Eliane Elias. Courtesy of the artist hide caption

toggle caption Courtesy of the artist

Eliane Elias On Piano Jazz

Brazilian pianist, composer, and vocalist Eliane Elias is a renowned artist in her home country and in the American jazz scene. Hear her first Piano Jazz performance from 1988.

Eliane Elias On Piano Jazz

  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/607421826/607450646" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">

Willie Pickens On Piano Jazz

Chicago jazz mainstay Willie Pickens died this past December at age 86. Revisit his performance with McPartland in this 1997 episode of Piano Jazz.

Willie Pickens On Piano Jazz

  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/604342537/604343909" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">

Cleo Brown on the cover of Here Comes Cleo. Courtesy of the artist hide caption

toggle caption Courtesy of the artist

Cleo Brown On Piano Jazz

Cleo Brown makes a rare appearance to perform her greatest hit, "Pinetop's Boogie-Woogie," and to recall the style's heyday in the 1930s.

Cleo Brown On Piano Jazz

  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/602133644/602133663" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
Back To Top