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In race for a Grammy
Vijay Iyer was getting a PhD in physics when he got sidetracked into music. Now the 39-year-old jazz pianist is nominated for a Grammy for Best Instrumental Jazz Album for his trio's 2009 album Historicity. He is pleased, but it obviously hasn't gone to his head.
"A jazz piano trio featuring originals and covers - there are probably thousands of albums fitting that description, " he says. "That's not out of the ordinary. What we do is bring our own musical language to it. And that's continuing a jazz tradition. "
It's a little odd to hear Iyer talking about jazz tradition. He's hardly a traditional jazz musician. He comes from no deep jazz roots. His parents who emigrated from India in the 1960s with thousands of other professionals are quite non-musical.
"Well non-musical is a bit harsh, " he says gently. "I would put it as not particularly musically inclined. "
But, like many other desi immigrants acculturating to America, they put their children through music lessons. His sister learned the piano. He learned the violin. "You take lessons, you compete formally and informally and you can measure excellence, " says Iyer. "I suppose that makes classical music appealing to bourgeois families. "
His family wasn't quite the kind that inflicted their children's musical talents at the family potluck. "I was able to be myself, " says Iyer.
Part of being himself was teaching himself to play the piano, his sister's instrument. "It was an antidote to the formal training of the violin, " he says. "I did it for fun, with no guidance, no goal. "
What it taught him though was the power of improvising. It built an organic relationship with the piano, which has stood him in good stead in the world of jazz. In that world, he knew he was something of an oddity. First off, he's got that PhD though he switched from physics to technology and the arts. (His thesis was about music perception and cognition). He played late night gigs while he worked on his doctorate. He says it was hard to make that break when he realised he loved music more than physics. "It was traumatic. I spent six years working towards a physics career. That was a quarter of my life, " he says.
"But I think I am the better for it, " he says quietly. He produced his first album Memorophilia in 1995. "I am this kind of left-of-centre jazz musician anyway, " he says. "And then there's the Indian thing. There are so many degrees of marginalisation. "
"Vijay and I are like cousins, " says Rudresh Mahanthappa, saxophonist, fellow desi and frequent collaborator with Iyer as part of the duo Raw Materials. "We were introduced by the great alto saxophonist Steve Coleman back in 1995. Our friendship and connection goes far beyond the music that we play together. "
"It's sort of self-inspiring, " says Iyer. "That's why I collaborate a lot with him. We were both trying to figure out our relationship with our ethnicity. " Iyer says while he grew up surrounded by "Indian stuff" (food, language, culture) he never had any access to training in Carnatic classical music. "But rhythmic concepts from Indian music form the backbone of my work, " he says.
It's certainly paid off. Iyer is a fixture on those annual lists of the most innovative jazz musicians. In 2004 he was Up and Coming Musician of the Year. Six years later, the Jazz Journalists Association named him 2010 Musician of the Year (that puts him in the company of the likes of Herbie Hancock). Historicity was named #1 Album of the Year by The New York Times. His first solo album, titled simply Solo, came out this year featuring his original compositions as well as his take on works by Duke Ellington, Thelonius Monk and even Michael Jackson's Human Nature.
These days, he's a faculty member at New York University and the New School.
But most Indians have not heard much about him. The last time he played in India was at Jazz Yatra in 1998 and in Chennai in 2000. He remembers his grandfather and uncles and aunts came to his concert in Chennai. "My mother flew in, " he says. "It was a momentous occasion, a homecoming. "
And what about his sister, the original pianist in the family? "She plays when she has access to the piano, " he says. "But right now, she's in Rwanda. And there are not a lot of pianos there. "
That, he says, is another stumbling block when it comes to playing in India. "There aren't a lot of pianos there either. But things are changing there. The jazz scene has grown quite a bit, " he says. And then chuckles, "Maybe we can lean on Steinway to get with the program."
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