“Part of what this list says for me is how I became a particular music maker,” says Vijay Iyer, talking about the main influences he found for this interview. “Not just as a player, but as someone who wanted to work from within.”
The notion of “inside” suggests a complex set of nuances for Iyer, a pianist and composer who began his career on the fringes of improvised music, and now operates somewhere near its center. Artist of the famous ECM label and MacArthur scholar who teaches at Harvard University in the department of music and the department of African and Afro-American studies, he is also voted eternal artist of the year in the venerable international poll of critics of DownBeat. His musical management even takes physical form in the cramped front living room of his Harlem brownstone, which now houses a nine-foot-long Yamaha grand piano that was once owned by jazz legend Chick Corea; bought at auction by an anonymous benefactor after Corea’s death last year, it was later given to Iyer.
Partly because of his high academic qualifications—and also, no doubt, because of certain ethnic stereotypes—Iyer has often had to push back against labeling his music as “cerebral.” In fact, the shifting layers of complexity in his music usually have a visceral effect on albums like last year’s. Worried, with Linda May Han Oh on bass and Tyshawn Sorey on drums, and 2016’s A cosmic rhythm with every stroke, recorded with one of his mentors, trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith. The crucial role of the body in music cognition was actually the subject of Iyer’s thesis, which helped reframe a Eurocentric bias in cognitive studies. Speaking of the music that shaped his life experience, Iyer often mentions how it resonates in the body, like a physical sensation.
Similarly, Iyer has used curating her 5-10-15-20 playlist to reflect not only on the music itself, but also on how she personally changed her perspective, charted her course. or retained it. In the space on the ground floor of his building which often serves as a rehearsal studio, he thinks to himself: “There is another version which speaks just of my musical education, but looking at those specific years, I said, ‘OK, let me be honest about who I was at those times.
Vijay Iyer: I vividly remember queuing to see star wars. There was a line around the building, and we had just exceeded the number of people they could let into a screening, so the door literally slammed in our face. I cried, but we waited for the next screening. I can’t say I could quite understand what I was seeing, but the grandeur of the opening fanfare, coupled with the then-futuristic landscape, it all felt so high-tech to me.