Vijay Iyer: Self-Taught Jazz Pianist Goes 'Solo' A jazz pianist and bandleader, Iyer is one of the most critically acclaimed musicians of the past decade. He also has a masters in physics. Here, he explains why he decided to switch to a full-time career as a jazz musician, and describes what influenced his latest album, Solo..
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Vijay Iyer: Self-Taught Jazz Pianist Goes 'Solo'

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Vijay Iyer: Self-Taught Jazz Pianist Goes 'Solo'

Vijay Iyer: Self-Taught Jazz Pianist Goes 'Solo'

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(Soundbite of music)


As the son of immigrants - well, I should start by saying this is FRESH AIR and Im Terry Gross.

As the son of immigrants from India, pianist and composer Vijay Iyer didn't originally see a place for himself and jazz but he found one. Last year, his album "Historicity" topped many critics best of the year lists, including Ben Ratliff of The New York Times. It was the album of the year on the Village Voice Critics' Poll. Iyer's new album, "Solo," shows his wide range of musical influences and his versatility. It includes re-workings of a Michael Jackson song, and a song from "West Side Story," a tribute to Sun Ra, music inspired by physics - he has a masters degree in physics - and this version of Duke Ellington's "Black and Tan Fantasy."

(Soundbite of song, "Black and Tan Fantasy")

GROSS: That's Vijay Iyer from his new album "Solo."

Vijay, welcome to FRESH AIR. Why did you want to cover the Ellington song "Black and Tan Fantasy?"

Mr. VIJAY IYER (Musician): Well, you know that song's been kind of haunting me for about 20 years, at least. I think I first found it in a piano book that belonged to my sister that was sort of an anthology of blues, boogie-woogie and stride piano. You know, my sister was the one who actually had formal piano lessons and so I used to kind of raid her piano bench for whatever I could find there.

GROSS: "Black and Tan Fantasy" always sounds like a funeral march to me and I really like the marchiness...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: ...that you get from it.

Mr. IYER: Well, you know, I really went into the Harlem stride tradition and I'm very influenced by Monk in that regard. He is somebody who pushed the envelope with that language, you know, in terms really straddling this divide between on the one hand keeping this very buoyant pulse, and on the other hand being very expressive and free and somehow embodying all of that in one person. And that, you know, the stride tradition where youre really doing one thing with your left hand and the other thing with your right and they're very independent, you know.

GROSS: You're such a good pianist, it kind of amazes me that you didn't set out to be a professional musician. And correct me if I have any of this wrong, you got your undergraduate degree in math and physics at Yale, then you went to the University of California at Berkeley and got your masters in physics?

Mr. IYER: That's correct.

GROSS: And your PhD in...

Mr. IYER: It was called technology in the arts.

GROSS: So what were you expecting to do with those degrees?

Mr. IYER: During my undergraduate years, I was really interested in literature and in philosophy and in psychology and history. But I was also very much groomed for the sciences, as were many - I'd say many people from my community. You know, I am the son of immigrants from India. My father was a scientist. He came here in the mid-'60s, along with a whole new wave of immigrants from India who had a certain technical training that was sort of - they were sort of selected for that. You know, there was a change in immigration law in the mid-'60s that kind of opened the doors to people like my parents.

So I was, you know, I grew up with my parents and a lot of their friends being scientists and engineers and doctors. So that was in a way just what I fell into and also it seemed like a stable thing to do. It seemed like a wise and prudent thing to do. And you know with immigrant cultures, stability is really the first priority and you can't blame them for that.

GROSS: I'm wondering if what you learned in math and physics applies at all to your music. And I'm thinking, I guess, specifically of a piece of yours that I'm about to play called "Patterns," which is it's pattern music. It's not really about melody. It's about, you know, repeating and slightly shifting patterns.

Mr. IYER: Hmm.

GROSS: And that it seems like there are or may be connections to math in that.

Mr. IYER: Well, you know, I'd say the connection to mathematics is through musical traditions. You know, I'm very influenced by the music of my heritage. You know, as I said, my parents are from India and I've spent a good deal of time studying on my own terms and sort of coming to terms with especially Carnatic music, the South Indian classical music. You know and, particularly, I'm interested in rhythmic concepts from South Indian music, and so, I work with a lot of these elements in my music.

And you know, that, the structures of that tradition are very mathematical, but it's in a way that is - it's an aesthetic, you know? It's not just about calculation for its own sake or something. It's actually something that pervades not just the music but the visual art and the culture of South India.

GROSS: Well, let's hear "Patterns" and then we'll talk more about the Indian traditional music that has influenced you. And this is Vijay Iyer from his new album "Solo." It's his composition called "Patterns."

(Soundbite of song, "Patterns")

GROSS: That's an excerpt of the Vijay Iyer's composition "Patterns" from his new album "Solo." How did you first hear jazz because, you know, growing up in the '80s or - '80s?

Mr. IYER: Yeah, '70s and '80s.

GROSS: Seventies and '80s, yeah, I mean jazz was no longer like a popular music that was all over the radio unless you sought it out. You weren't going to likely hear it on jukeboxes or, you know, so how did you hear it?

Mr. IYER: That's true. You know, it was hard to come by and it's even harder still to come by nowadays than it was then. There were instances of it on TV. I remember Charles Kuralt used to have Billy Taylor kind of...

GROSS: Right.

Mr. IYER: a segment on "Sunday Morning."

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. IYER: And I remember seeing the Modern Jazz Quartet on there. And I also remember seeing Dizzy Gillespie on "Sesame Street" when I was really little. I remember seeing John Blake, the violinist, on "Mr. Rogers" when I was a kid.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Well, and that made an impression on you? That made you think about -this is interesting?

Mr. IYER: I think, you know, it was, and especially because I remember seeing John Blake playing violin and I was playing violin and so I remember thinking wow, you can do that on violin too? And, of course, the whole soundtrack to a lot of those shows like you know, Toots Thielemans played the theme to "Sesame Street" and, you know, Roger Callaway was the pianist on "Mr. Rogers." So like there were gigs for pretty serious jazz artists on TV.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. IYER: But then also, I have to say that when I was in junior high and high school, that was around the time of Herbie Hancock's "Rockit." Okay.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. IYER: So that's hit, you know, when I was probably in eighth grade or something and, you know, that was like the kind of bizarre intervention from a jazz musician into popular culture that that had implications, you know, so that was my first exposure to Herbie Hancock.

GROSS: My guest is pianist and composer Vijay Iyer. His new album is called "Solo." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is pianist and composer Vijay Iyer and he has a new album called "Solo."

So if your parents were part of the first sizable wave of people from India to emigrate to the United States, that makes you part of the first sizable group of Indian-Americans born here. So, as somebody who is Indian-American in a relatively small community, did you pick up that people were thinking well, like, who are you to be playing this music? Like, what's your connection to it?

Mr. IYER: Well, you know, I think it's a process that reveals more and more about the listener. And, you know, we're in a very strange period, particularly, in terms of how we deal with what it means to be American. And in a way, it's sort of like we're hitting this identity crisis or something. And I say we because I feel 100 percent American. I was born and raised here. I grew up completely immersed in American culture, you know? The music, the junk food, the movies and so on. I mean I grew up with "Star Wars" and, you know, Michael Jackson, of course, and all this kind of stuff that's part of our generation.

But, you know, I think at the same time America has been changing and it's very much because of the immigration law change that I mentioned earlier that gave birth to my community and many other communities, that helped suddenly, you know, subtly shift the overall demographics in a way that America started to look a little different.

But in a way, making an album like this gives me a chance to state a case, to say well, actually, this is who I am. You know, like I said, I'm influenced by Michael Jackson and by Thelonious Monk and Duke Ellington and by Andrew Hill and by my heritage as an Indian-American and by a lot of things.

GROSS: Your previous album, "Historicity," did so well critically. It was album of the year in Village Voice Critics' Poll, and the Jazz Times Critics' Poll. New Times music critic Ben Ratliff named it his album of the year. And I want play something from that album and I'm going to play the - your version of the Leonard Bernstein song "Somewhere," with the lyric that we won't hear by Stephen Sondheim.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: And this is, of course, from "West Side Story." And you - this is like this love song sung between Tony and Maria and they're...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Romeo and Juliet types who aren't supposed to be together but they want to be together and they're singing that like somewhere there's a place for us, and you just, your version just kind of erupts in the middle and in these like pounding descending phrases that are - they're great. But I mean they're almost violent.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: I mean it's just so not in keeping with this like romantic, oh someday we'll find that place for us. So talk little bit about like reinterpreting this song.

Mr. IYER: Well, you know I kind of was interested in almost intervening on that song and creating a sort of alternate reading of it that presents some reality that's different from its original context, which, of course, is really part of the jazz tradition. I mean the towering example being Coltrane playing "My Favorite Things" or...

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. IYER: know, or Monk playing "I Should Care" or Ahmad Jamal playing "But Not For Me" or all these, you know, where the sort of classic approaches to a pre-existing song where you somehow transform it into something that's more about you and less about the song...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. IYER: ...while still somehow retaining elements of the song. So that was basically my approach.

GROSS: So here's Vijay Iyer from his album "Historicity," which was released last year. And this is Bernstein's "Somewhere."

(Soundbite of song, "Somewhere")

GROSS: That's an excerpt of Vijay Iyer's reinterpretation of "Somewhere" from "West Side Story." That's really great. I love those percussive descending lines that you do on that.

Mr. IYER: Thank you.

GROSS: Now your first instrument was violin. You started taking violin lessons when you were six, is it?

Mr. IYER: Three actually.

GROSS: Three? Yikes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. IYER: Yes.

GROSS: That's really Suzuki method, isn't it?

Mr. IYER: That what is was, indeed.

GROSS: Oh was it really?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. IYER: Yeah. And so I mean the benefit of that was that my ear was trained first and from very early.

GROSS: Is that the method where they train your ear before they give you the instrument?

Mr. IYER: Well, before they give you notation they train you by ear, you know.

GROSS: I see.

Mr. IYER: So you kind of learn more by imitating the teacher. And...

GROSS: You have these little toy violins or something if you're three?

Mr. IYER: Oh yeah, you have a - I think I started on a 1/16th size or something. You know my daughter is going through the same exact thing right now, which has been interesting. And so I'm kind of reliving a lot of those things.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. IYER: So it's hilarious and charming.

GROSS: What did you get her, a violin too?

Mr. IYER: Oh yeah. She's - it was her choice, in fact, so there must be something about it that appeals to little ones. So...

GROSS: So what point did you realize that violin wasnt your love and your true love was piano?

Mr. IYER: Well, you know, they kind of proceeded - they happened at the same time. I took violin lessons until I was 18. And so it wasn't like I ever said oh, you know, violin is not my true love or is my true love.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. IYER: It was actually just something that I stuck with for quite a while until I was into college - in my sophomore year, I think, was the last year of my violin lessons. And the only reason I stopped was because I couldn't keep it up to the level that I wanted to and continue with my studies in physics at the same time.

So, but piano - so the way it worked was because I had this early training by ear it meant that I could actually kind of transfer that skill in some, you know, limited way to another instrument. And piano was around because my sister was taking lessons and so I just started messing around on it and exploring and figuring things out little by little.

GROSS: I tell you, I took piano lessons as a kid through at least junior high, maybe some of high school, and I, at some point, I seemed really talented for a few months, like as a child who could like play simple tunes by ear, and then it just got so hard.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: You know, it got so incredibly hard like reading all this like complicated music and trying to figure out like the fingerings and how to play it without hitting the wrong notes and coordinating like two hands and pedals and all of that. And so it's - and learning like complicated chords. And it's incomprehensible to me that you can learn piano without taking lessons.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Not that the lessons helped me get very far. Nevertheless, a piano is such a complicated instrument. And even just like learning chord formations on the piano it's just, I just think it's so hard and yet so many people seem capable of learning by ear, yourself included, and you are such an excellent player, I just like - I don't understand it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. IYER: Well, thank you for that. But what I'd say is it took a long time and it's still ongoing. You know, I still have plenty to learn on the instrument. It's something that never ends. And particularly in dealing with a lot of the things you just named, especially with intricate, notated, gnarly music, you know, it's pretty, it's pretty hard.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. IYER: I won't deny it and, you know, it depends on where your emphasis is and my emphasis has been about being a pianist and composer. And so, I compose things for myself to play, which means that they might be within the realm of what I can already do or they might be just outside of it and then I have to kind of stretch to meet it.

GROSS: My guest is pianist and composer Vijay Iyer. His new album is called "Solo." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is pianist and composer Vijay Iyer. His new album is called "Solo."

So not to pry into your personal finances, but...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: ...since "Historicity," your album from last year was - it topped so many critics' polls and individual top 10 list, you know, by any critical standard it was like a great album. Did it make any money for you? I mean like what's - you don't have to give me figures or anything, but I'm just wondering like what's it like in the jazz world now to have even something that acclaimed. Does it pay?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. IYER: Well, you know, what it really translates into immediately is more performing opportunities.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. IYER: And that's sort of - in a way, it's sort of intangible, or it's hard to measure like oh, well, I got paid this much for making this album because really, the album brought all these opportunities to me that might not have come my way otherwise.

But, you know, it doesn't cost a lot to make a jazz record nowadays, you know, so the fact that domestically it sold something like 7,000 copies, I think, I'm not sure actually. And also that it sold quite a number in Europe because of the attention it got, that, you know, that starts to pay for itself and I start to see something coming back.

GROSS: Well, I've chosen the music that we have heard so far and sometimes to prove what a generous person I am, at the end of an interview I'll let the performer choose a record.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: So, is there a track you'd like to end with?

Mr. IYER: Hmm, well, you know, I had fun making the last track on the album, which is...

GROSS: That's the one dedicated to Sun Ra.

Mr. IYER: That's right. It's basically a blues that's in his honor. You know, a lot of people think about Sun Ra as this theatrical and very...

GROSS: Kind of crazy? Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. IYER: ...elusive, kind of playful, I'd say, imaginative space cadet, literally...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. IYER: the sense, you know, because all this stuff - he kind of conjured his own mythology about being from Saturn and so forth, and I love that side of him. But, at the same time, I feel like sometimes people forget that he could play some piano. And some of the most influential albums for me are the solo piano albums that he made. There's one called "Monorails and Satellites" and there are a couple from the '70s that were on Paul Bley's label. And, you know, I think it's amazing.

And in a way I think it's so mysterious and so profound that people haven't really dealt with it yet. He was so far ahead of his time that we are still catching up. So this is kind of my homage to Sun Ra, the pianist.

GROSS: And it's called "One For Blount" because his birth name is Sunny Blount.

Mr. IYER: Yes.

GROSS: Well, Vijay Iyer, thank you so much. A pleasure to talk with you.

Mr. IYER: Thank you. It's been an honor to be on the show.

GROSS: Thank you. And so, this is "One For Blount," from Vijay Iyer's new album "Solo."

(Soundbite of song, "One For Blount")

GROSS: Music from Vijay Iyer's new album "Solo." You can hear three tracks from it - Ellington's "Black and Tan Fantasy," Michael Jackson's "Human Nature" and Vijay Iyer's original "Patterns" - on our website,, where you can also download podcasts of our show.

I'm Terry Gross.

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