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Vijay Iyer And A New Trio Reflect On The 'Uneasy' Past And Present

From left: Tyshawn Sorey, Vijay Iyer and Linda May Han Oh. The trio, Iyer's newest, collaborated on the album <em>Uneasy</em>.
Craig Marsden
Courtesy of the artist
From left: Tyshawn Sorey, Vijay Iyer and Linda May Han Oh. The trio, Iyer's newest, collaborated on the album Uneasy.

Vijay Iyer recorded Uneasy, his forthcoming ECM album, at the close of 2019, in the waning light of what's sometimes wryly hailed as "the before-times."

"It was really on the cusp of, well, the rest of everything," Iyer, a pianist and composer of exceptional renown, tells NPR Music. "I'm really glad to have this document of what we used to be, and what we will be again. This is a reminder of what's possible: how we can be together, how we can move together, how we can build something together."

Uneasy, releasing on April 9, marks an official debut for Iyer's hyperalert new trio, with Linda May Han Oh on bass and Tyshawn Sorey on drums. And with compositions drawn from across Iyer's creative output — including "Configurations," one of his earliest known pieces, and "Augury," a solo meditation conjured in the studio — it doubles as a self-portrait in time. Its two non-originals are "Drummer's Song," by Iyer's friend Geri Allen, and "Night and Day," a standard he associates with another major influence, McCoy Tyner.

ECM has released the album's opening track, "Children of Flint," whose title refers to the humanitarian crisis sparked by a contaminated water supply in Flint, Mich. That saga began in 2014, but it's still ongoing: its most recent chapter involves legal charges against the state's former governor. Along similar lines, Iyer composed "Combat Breathing" in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement nearly seven years ago; its inclusion on Uneasy is an implicit reminder of how urgent that cause remains.

Iyer, who received a MacArthur Fellowship in 2013 and joined the faculty at Harvard the following year, maintains a rigorous sense of perspective around his work as both an artist and an advocate. He carries himself with the wariness of an outsider, despite an emergent consensus about his importance.

His previous trio album, Break Stuff — featuring a longstanding unit with bassist Stephan Crump and drummer Marcus Gilmore —was one of the most heralded albums of 2015. A later sextet effort, Far From Over, became the most acclaimed jazz album of 2017, running away with that year's NPR Music Jazz Critics Poll. Iyer has since released a visionary duo album with his fellow pianist Craig Taborn; last April he took part in the first installment of Alone Together, a pandemic commissioning project by classical violinist Jennifer Koh.

I spoke by phone with Iyer this week about the ease behind Uneasy, the chemistry of his new trio, and how he perceives his role as an artist and an educator in a chaotic age.

Nate Chinen: What is your general feeling about this trio — these specific personalities finding common ground?

Vijay Iyer: As you know, I've played with Tyshawn for 20 years, over many incarnations, many different projects and collaborations: very spontaneous things, very planned things. And it now is known to the world what I've known all along, which is that he's one of the greatest musicians we will ever know. It's always a thrill making music with him, because there's a commitment, a level of support, a level of very, very detailed listening, hyperawareness and foresight that he brings as a player. And the fact that he's a composer serves him very well because he can think ahead. That's always been the case.

And on this album, I hear that history you have together — but there's also a trio language that you've developed as a composer-bandleader. And Linda fits right into that, in her own way.

I was remembering how I first heard about Linda. She made this debut trio album that was a unique format of trumpet, bass and drums. It was Ambrose Akinmusire who told me about her. He was like, "She has that type of ear." It's the type of ear that Ambrose has and that Tyshawn has, which is a real perspicuous awareness of everything that's happening. So she functions very well in a rhythm section but then she also functions really well melodically. You hear this in the way she composes, too. As a soloist or melodicist, there's a brightness in her playing; I hear it as an optimistic sound.

Mmhmm, yeah.

But then what I would also say is that the way we fell together as a unit was at Banff. I've been artistic director at the Banff International Workshop in Jazz & Creative Music since 2013. But my first time there was in 2012, as a kind of transitional year. Every year since then I've brought Tyshawn as one of the key faculty. Then we made him co-director of the program a few years ago. And almost every year, Linda has come as faculty — so we teach and learn together, we listen to people together, and at the end of the week we have to put on a concert. In the course of all that, we'd become a unit. It sort of fell into place while we weren't paying attention. And then in June of 2019, we played just one or two nights at the Jazz Standard, and that August when we were up at Banff, we did a concert for the students, just to blow off some steam and share music with each other. That was when I had this flash: "This has its own identity." And there was also this excitement. I remember when I suggested to Tyshawn, "Hey, do you want to play a set with Linda?" His eyes really lit up, like I've seen happen with him not-that-many times in 20 years. Everything clicked and it had this exuberance. It felt both settled and edgy at the same time. We could move together with ease, and yet it was also full of surprises. So right after that set, I said "Hey, you guys want to make a record?"

As I think about the pieces you've included in this album, there's a retrospective quality: you're pulling things from your own history, as well as offering something new. Do you see the album as a kind of compendium?

I could actually say that about all of my trio albums, in some ways. I always treat the trio as a space to curate. Funny, we were just talking to Cécile McLorin Salvant yesterday: Yosvany [Terry, saxophonist and composer] and I are co-teaching this course called Composer-Performers of the African Diaspora, and [Salvant] was our guest. She has this way of treating curation as a form of recovery: like, "This is something of the past that we buried, for some reason, and we need to remember it." For me, the trio is a space to recast things — and always has been, even when it's my own material. There is often this sense of reworking, and not just for its own sake but because in the act of recasting you reveal something else. My daughter does this exercise where she copies existing paintings, which is a thing that painters have always done. It draws attention to the work of the hand. With the way that the trio is configured, we're all making sounds with our hands. And in particular, it's not using breath — so its connection to the body is very tactile. That means that there's a sort of translation happening there. Even just to play a melody on piano is a translation, because all I'm doing is pushing down buttons. Obviously, that's an oversimplification, but what does it mean to create a shape that has some breath to it, when all I'm doing is moving on this grid?

When you talk about pianism in that context, there are tributes on this album to McCoy Tyner and Geri Allen — two of the people I think of with regard to a 'singing' quality on piano. These are two artists, especially Geri, who've meant a lot to you.

Oh yeah. But there's also, with both of them... I wrote an article that was just published about Geri's hands. And when you dig into McCoy Tyner in the '70s, for example, there's stuff that is not melodic but also born of the hand. In a way that we could say about [Thelonious] Monk too. When you listen to Geri Allen in the '80s, how she constructs the lines, you still also hear her hands at work. So I think that's been the common thread for me that I've been following with a lot of these pianists; I would also include Andrew Hill, Sun Ra, even Bud Powell in that Mount Rushmore. It's not that I'm trying to sound like them, but more trying to summon what it is that my hands do and hear the latent musicality in that. That's been part of my approach all this time.

Back to that impulse of recovery: what has it been like to get together with Linda and Tyshawn and play a piece like "Configurations," which has so many layers of history for you?

Well, it was a good challenge for me. [Laughs] It's a hard tune. It was a way to test the limits of what we could achieve with synchrony. Part of what made the original work was having four parts instead of three. There's a challenge in playing trio, which has curiously plagued me all this time: you can't always tell where the written part stops. Because it's all made of the same stuff, in terms of what the hands do. So the way that we signal that this is composed or orchestrated, is do things like unison. Like when you have Rudresh [Mahanthappa, alto saxophonist] and me doubling a melody; on the 20-year-old version of the song, that's what you hear. It signals to the ear that this was not a coincidence. But that's hard to signal in the trio context, because nothing about my hand on a key says: "I wrote this yesterday." It's just a hand on the key. So that's where we have this interesting fluidity in the format, because it doesn't reveal itself as "this" or "that." It's always fluid, or always being made, or always a product of an act. Back to playing "Configurations" – it was fun, because Tyshawn and I had to refresh our memories, and Linda learned it in a flash.

[Laughs] I remember we played a concert in Boston just before we recorded, and we were literally backstage before the gig, Tyshawn and I going over the ending right before we went on. We knew it, but just in terms of how it lays across the meter, and how you feel it across the body. If you're feeling this pulse structure, how do you feel these cross-rhythms?

"Combat Breathing" comes from a moment in 2014 when you were at BAM and orchestrated a "die-in" onstage — and it's disheartening how relevant that gesture still feels. Just today, a New York grand jury had a ruling about the Daniel Prude case in your hometown of Rochester. So I wanted to talk about the "speaking out" aspect of your music, and how it plays out on this album.

I don't think it would be fair for anyone to call me an activist. I think it would be just a mistake. I know what activism requires. Certainly, just bringing it up is not the same as activism. What I try to do is just remind people that you can, for example, give money to an organization that is doing work. I always point people to The Movement For Black Lives. Or in the case of "The Children of Flint," there's a fund, flintkids.org, which is run through the Community Foundation of Greater Flint. I've been giving money to both of those organizations and encouraging others to give too. Beyond that, it's still an instrumental trio record, and probably for the most part this will sail by most people who take time to listen. But every chance I get, I would like to encourage people to support these issues. Otherwise, I don't know what I can say about my role in the grand scheme of things.

But just the fact that "Children of Flint" is the opening track on the album, and the first music that will be available — doesn't that in itself say a lot about the intention?

I'm cautious about a song title being enough. Because it's not enough. It just isn't, frankly. I would like to serve as some kind of catalyst for someone to learn more. How do we support ongoing efforts in communities like that one? How do we support ongoing genuine activism? So, any way that I can support it from the position that I'm in, from my vantage and just the fact that people might listen to something I do every now and then, that's one small thing that I can do.

Can you talk about what's been possible for you in this regard at Harvard, working within an institution that has often not done enough?

Harvard is the original settler colonial university. I mean, when we think of 1619 — well, this university was formed 15 years later. It's from that era, which means it predates the rule of law, the idea of freedom. So because it predates it, it also often defies it. I don't want to suggest that I'm up in there fixing anything. I think that I've done my best to hold space, create space in the music department for different perspectives and different voices. I'm also cross-appointed in African and African-American Studies, which is the same department that Skip [Gates] and, at least for the moment, Cornel [West] are in. So I get to roll with that community as well. I can teach courses that are cross-listed there, so we can talk about race openly. We can talk about oppression and white supremacy, and anti-blackness. Those are not bad words in my courses, because I occupy that space. So that means that I can use teaching to shine a light on certain things.


Then also there's this doctoral program within the music department that I started six years ago, and now has Esperanza Spalding and Claire Chase and Yvette Janine Jackson and Yosvany as part of our faculty. So effectively what's happening is that we are holding space for non-mainstream perspectives — for artists of color, for studying music made by people of color, made by Black people in the last century, made by living people of African descent. So that's new. That's something that, 10 years ago, was unimaginable at Harvard. It's... well, shall I say "uneasy"? [Laughs] It's never quite a settled project. It's sort of ongoing, facing new challenges year by year. It's complicated. When they asked me to apply, it wasn't like "Here, come and start your own program." That wasn't the idea. It happened almost because I had to. It wasn't because I was some big institution-builder or entrepreneur of some kind. In a way, the reason it exists is because I didn't have a choice.

Watching from afar, understanding what it means to be community-building in a space like that, I really appreciate that effort. I'm sure it can't be easy.

Yeah, but I will also say that there's been a lot of goodwill, and a lot of support from key players at the university. We've been able to do this without someone undermining us. And being able to be in these two departments balances things out in a different way. That also wasn't initially the case. I became part of AAAS, as it's called, just a few years ago, in 2017. Just because we can gather and talk about race at Harvard. That's the prevailing topic in every faculty meeting. Whereas in another department, I might find myself the only person of color in the meeting. Not that people are hostile, but it's just a different dynamic, where it's not the first thing being considered for everybody. So that's been helpful to me in terms of having a different sense of community and a different sense of comradeship. Finding a different role for myself other than "Oh, here's this weirdo in the corner of the music department." It opens what we're doing to a larger set of questions.

Vijay Iyer's Uneasy will be released on ECM Records April 9.

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