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World Music Features

Vijay Iyer

By Tom Pryor
Published March 29, 2006

Pianist Vijay Iyer has been exceeding expectations and winning critics over since his 1995 recording debut.

It’s never easy being labeled an up-and-coming genius. The expectations are often too high and too burdensome, especially in the jazz community. But pianist Vijay Iyer has been exceeding expectations and winning critics over since his 1995 recording debut, and his latest, much anticipated record Reimagining (Savoy Jazz), may herald his breakthrough to genuine stardom.

            Recorded with his quartet (Rudresh Mahanthappa on alto sax, Stephan Crump on bass, Marcus Gilmore on drums, and Iyer on piano) Reimagining follows up 2003’s Blood Sutra and In What Language? to position Iyer as one of the most important and innovative jazz pianists working today. The quartet plays with an organic confidence here and a rhythmic dynamism that’s hard to overstate (thanks in no small part to 18-year-old wunderkind Gilmore). But what sets Iyer’s quartet apart is both the intelligence and worldly engagement of the compositions, and the emotional warmth that the players bring to them.

 “When people think of jazz, they often think of the past, of standards and nostalgia,” says Iyer. “But for me jazz is about making music that’s engaged with the present. I see music as a zone for creative inquiry into who I am and how I fit into the world. The musicians who’ve inspired me the most were always engaged with the present. They didn’t retreat from the world and neither do I.”

            Iyer feels that his experiences as a first-generation Indian-American have helped shape this sensibility: “I think that people like me, who come from an immigrant community, have a responsibility to offer an alternative critical perspective from the margins.” That perspective is most evident on “Song For Midwood,” named for the Little Pakistan area of Brooklyn, which suffered a wave of reverse migration after the post-9/11 anti-Muslim backlash.

            But identity politics don’t define Iyer’s music—his palette is much broader than that. “South Asians don’t have much of a history playing [jazz],” he says. “But there’s an established tradition of artists investigating their ethnic traditions, like Randy Weston adapting African rhythms for the piano. Karnatic music (South Indian classical music) is part of my heritage, and Rudresh introduced me to the Hindustani tradition (North Indian classical music), so there are certainly elements of those in the music. I grew up listening to all of these kinds of music, including hip-hop and pop, and all of those experiences inform who I am and how I make music.”