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


This interview was originally broadcast on Oct. 14, 2010.

Jazz musician Vijay Iyer started playing the violin when he was 3, but when he was 4 or 5, he wanted to play another instrument: the piano.

"The piano was around because my sister was taking lessons, and so I just started messing on it and figuring things out little by little," Iyer tells Terry Gross. "I can't really pinpoint the beginning of it."

Mainly self-taught, the New York-based jazz composer and pianist now performs worldwide with his trio, quartet and quintet, among other groups. His album Historicity topped the 2009 Village Voice Jazz Critics' Poll, and was one of the most critically acclaimed jazz albums of 2009. His album Solo features original compositions, as well as covers of classic tunes by Duke Ellington and Michael Jackson.

Over the past decade, Iyer has established himself as one of the freshest, most compelling jazz leaders in the field, often collaborating with saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa to combine elements of South Indian classical music with traditional Western jazz. Though he has degrees in both math and physics, Iyer says the mathematical components of his compositions come more from the music of South India than from anything he learned in the classroom.

"I'm very influenced by the music of my heritage, and I've spent a good deal of time studying on my own terms and coming to terms with carnatic music — the South Indian classical music. Particularly, I'm interested in rhythmic concepts from South Indian music," he says. "And so I work with a lot of these elements in my music. And the structures of that tradition are very mathematical, but it's in a way that is an aesthetic. It's not just about calculation for its own sake. It's something that pervades the visual art and the culture of South India."

Iyer's work has been commissioned by the Chicago Jazz Festival and the American Composers Orchestra. This year, he was voted Pianist of the Year for the second time in a row by the Jazz Journalists Association. He has received grants from the Rockefeller Foundation, the Jazz Institute of Chicago and the New York State Council on the Arts, and was recently named a 2013 MacArthur Foundation "genius." His trio received the 2010 Echo Award for best international ensemble and the 2010 Downbeat Critics Poll for best small ensemble.

His latest album, Holding It Down: The Veterans' Dreams Project, is a collaboration with poet Mike Ladd drawn from the experiences of American veterans of color from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Interview Highlights

On His Masters In Physics From The University Of California At Berkeley

"I was very much groomed for the sciences, as were many people from my community. I'm 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 kind of technical training. They were sort of selected for that. There was a change in immigration law in the 1960s that opened the doors to people like my parents. So I grew up with my parents and a lot of their friends being scientists and engineers and doctors. And in a way, that's just what I fell into, and it seemed like a stable thing to do. It seemed like a wise and prudent thing to do."

On Covering Duke Ellington's 'Black And Tan'

"['Black and Tan'] has 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. My sister was the one who had formal piano lessons, so I used to raid her piano bench for whatever I could find there. I found Duke Ellington's original notation for 'Black and Tan' in a solo piano arrangement back then, I suppose. I must have been in high school."

On Playing Both Violin And Piano

"I took violin lessons until I was 18, so it wasn't like I ever said, 'Violin is not my true love or is my true love.' It's just something that I stuck with, until... I think my sophomore year of college was the last year of 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 because I had this early training by ear, it meant that I could actually transfer that skill in some limited way to another instrument."

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