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Posted at 12:24 PM ET, 04/28/2011

Be specific: Jazz pianist Vijay Iyer talks about life as a crossover sensation


Vijay Iyer brings his crossover sound to Sixth & I Historic Synagogue on Saturday. (Photo by Jimmy Katz)
One of jazz's great young hopes, Vijay Iyer is a Grammy-nominated, genre-crossing, beloved-by-hipsters pianist/composer who recently released the solo disc "Tirtha," the latest in a string of well-regarded works that includes 2009's trio disc "Historicity."

Also known for his work with artists like Das Racist , David Banner and Talvin Singh, Iyer, who performs with his trio on Saturday at Sixth and I Historic Synagogue, answered Click Track's interview questions via e-mail. Some highlights...

You've become famous for your pop covers: "Human Nature," "Galang." Are you a pop music fan at heart? And did you find it daunting to enter that world, or do you find the borders between pop and jazz to be pretty porous?

Like many people, I grew up listening to whatever was on the radio. I came to jazz through various opportunities that came my way, but I've also collaborated at length with people in rock, pop, hip-hop, soul and electronic music, as well as Western classical and Indian classical music. When it comes to music, I don't really think about style as much as I think about people, ideas, and sound, and the possibilities that arise through specific collaborations.  

My past collaborations with poet Mike Ladd achieved a certain visibility and reach outside of the jazz world, and I do admit I found it a little daunting at first. Jazz is the place where I am most at home and accepted, but it is a pretty small pond compared to the wide open sea of music out there. When you open yourself up you are suddenly competing not just with your peers but also with Eminem and Beyoncé and whether it's an election year and what's on TV and so forth. But I'm just glad that we get to document our work and that people are able to hear it at all.

(On the mathematical element to jazz, after the jump.)

Do you find that due to covers like those, and your work with Das Racist, you get more crossover fans — more rock or indie fans — at your shows than the average jazz musician does? Most jazz pianists don't get glowing Pitchfork reviews .

It's hard for me to judge the impact of any one thing or to do accurate analyses of our audiences. What I have noticed is that there's been a certain critical mass in the audience for my work in the last couple of years — it's grown in a lot of different ways at the same time. That has a lot of possible causes, but one thing that seemed to help it along is that the range of material connects to a lot of distinct communities. Some people like my interpretations of "Somewhere" from West Side Story or "Imagine" by John Lennon, others like our cover of Julius Hemphill and Stevie Wonder and Ronnie Foster and Jimi Hendrix, still others appreciate the M.I.A. cover and the Das Racist affiliation, and yet others like my collaborations with Indian musicians or my compositions for classical musicians or my remixes. But it's not so calculated — the reality is that I love all of those things and just want to keep pushing my own envelope, as a player and composer.  

You've got a Masters in Physics from Cal [Berkeley], and there's definitely a mathematical element to jazz: How would you explain (to a layperson like me) the ways in which your degree comes in handy, if at all?

It's funny — you're one of the first journalists I've known to mention that there's a "mathematical element to jazz" as a whole (which is true, of course). Usually journalists suggest that jazz is just "a feeling" or "a vibe" or something "intuitive" and "spontaneous," and that I've made it more "complex" or "cerebral" with my "mathematical mind." But the fact is that Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Clifford Brown, and Eric Dolphy were all incredibly expressive jazz legends who could manipulate abstract quantities with extreme intelligence and precision. If you ask me, such people were actually mathematical geniuses, but they expressed it in sound instead of on paper or chalkboards.

How has my degree helped? I suppose it's given me a willingness to deal more rigorously with compositional structure, and it's also helped me understand how sound works in the air around us and in our bodies.  

By Allison Stewart  |  12:24 PM ET, 04/28/2011

Categories:  Be specific | Tags:  Vijay Iyer

 
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