Interview: Vijay Iyer

Pianist Vijay Iyer’s trio is at Purcell Room on Feb 5th. In a wide-ranging interview he  talks to Alex Roth:

Alex Roth: You’ve written extensively about the experience of coming to jazz from an Indian-American perspective (and vice versa). Here in the UK we are perhaps at an extra remove from the history of jazz (having appropriated its influence primarily through recordings, not through direct exposure in the country of its origin). Do you listen to many current UK (or if not, European) jazz artists? If so, do you perceive any particularly recognisable traits as distinct from our US counterparts?

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Vijay Iyer: I’ve listened to a lot of British musicians over the years, whether or not they self-identify with the term “jazz.”  But I have checked out a few different improvised music communities in the UK. Some of the best known are the elder experimentalists like Evan Parker, AMM, the late Derek Bailey, Tony Oxley, not to mention of course Dave Holland and Kenny Wheeler; on another axis there’s Courtney Pine, Steve Williamson, the Mondesirs, and the late Bheki Mseleku, all of whom I was checking out 20 years ago; and then after them, cats like Anthony Tidd and Robert Mitchell (both of whom I worked with via Steve Coleman in the mid-late 90s), as well as Jason Yarde, Byron Wallen, Abram Wilson, Soweto Kinch, David Okumu, and the young tenor player whose name I’m forgetting.  Also the F-IRE guys, Barak Schmool and all of them, those young guys Phronesis, Nikki Yeoh, Shabakah Hutchings, Zoe Rahman, and then also Matthew Bourne…

Ok, I’ll stop but you get the idea – I’ve been listening to you guys.  I’m also connected with the Asian Underground community through Talvin Singh, some of the ADF guys, and have been checking out all the UK hip-hop/electronica/grime/dubstep/etc too.  I know that there’s a lot of activity in these scenes that has some overlap with so-called jazz.  People can always make music together, no matter whatever label might be following them around.

AR: How is it different from the American scene? 

VI: I think it has to do with who’s empowered, how and why.  Of course jazz was created, defiantly, by African Americans living in the margins of 20th-century American cities, while facing immense, systemic oppression and dehumanization; and of course those aesthetics and methodologies have been taken up around the world.  But there has been a distinct and very different history of struggle for empowerment for the post-colonial immigrant communities in the UK, and that history (and the different musics born of it) perhaps has the most kinship with the history of African-American musics – jazz, soul, r&b and hip-hop.  So I wouldn’t exactly say that UK is removed from the history of jazz; I think the histories of the black and brown diasporas in the UK and US have been entangled, and their musics reflect that.

On the other hand, those musicians who self-identify as European, which seems to include a lot of white British artists, often speak of a different sense of connection, to different communities, histories, and set of identities: to European classical music, to modern composers, rock, experimentalism and “art music,” and ultimately to a certain dynamic of pan-European nationalism.  And I’ve noticed that what globally gets labeled “European jazz” usually seems more connected to these white European experimentalists and their protegés, and less to these post-colonial Black and Brown artists who identify and engage with techniques of black American music. Of course, certain individuals from these latter communities do get anointed from time to time.  And anyway, as I said, I’ve been checking out all of it, and have found things I like in every corner.

There are certainly racialized divisions in American jazz, as evidenced by, say, the different choices made by Herbie Hancock or Robert Glasper versus Keith Jarrett or Brad Mehldau, and subsequently the different audiences that connect or identify with them. And the emergence of people like myself or Rudresh has certainly complicated matters, too.  Nonetheless, I think that with all of us there’s probably still some sense of “Americanness” that helps tie it all together. It’s not only in the common set of references, but in the real, lived connection to various American histories, communities, and legacies.  We all worship Coltrane, but we also know that he walked these streets, he played these same venues, and he (for example) gives us all something very concrete to reach for.

Vijay Iyer Trio plays the Purcell Room (Southbank Centre) on Tuesday 5th February. His latest album Accelerando is out now on ACT.

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