Illustration: Iris Gottlieb
When you think of jazz, you might think of La La Land, luxury car commercials or fancy dinners. Cool, sophisticated, complex, jazz today seems to signify the epitome of class and taste. For pianist Vijay Iyer, this point of view is completely wrong about music. Jazz is not cool. Jazz is counter-cultural. Jazz is not an endangered art, jazz is alive and relevant. Jazz is not about virtuosity and technique, it is about fighting against racism and injustice. And for these reasons, maybe we shouldn’t call this music “jazz” at all.
With a trio of Linda May Han Oh on bass and Tyshawn Sorey on drums, Iyer recorded a new album, Worried, which continues the provocative political legacy of improvised music. Through songs that address Flint’s water crisis, Eric Garner’s murder and social unrest, Iyer connects his music to the key issues of our day without singing a word. While his songs originate from our chaotic present and crackle with fierce urgency, they also go back to alumni like John Coltrane, Geri Allen and Charles Mingus – musicians who never shied away from fighting. In this week’s episode of Lit Pop, Iyer spoke to co-host Nate Sloan about the dividing lines between music and activism, and why the term “jazz” is something to sell rather than to celebrate.
Nate Sloan: Tell me about the themes of your new album, Worried.
Vijay Iyer: We were in the studio in December 2019, which certainly sounded like the throes of American madness under a genocidal fascist regime. And the three of us [Iyer, Oh, and Sorey] because different artists of color have faced this in different ways. It was before the pandemic. And then the incredible uprising that began last summer – not just in the United States, but around the world, to police violence and anti-black violence in particular.
When you see a movement like that, it’s about hope, isn’t it? These are people who are fighting for their future. And so we were in this environment that felt like an apocalypse, this feeling of the end of worlds. It was the tone of the conversation. And yet there was this gesture of fighting for the world to come. So I guess I found myself right in the middle of it all, trying as an artist to imagine a future for this music.
I’m talking about a specific song on the album, “Children of Flint”. It’s one of the more overtly political titles in the collection, and I hear it as a reference to Flint’s water crisis. Is there a parallel between the dynamic of playing in an improvisation trio and the political reference in the title of the song?
I mean, that’s a good question, and maybe it’s better to leave a question. In a way, that’s kind of what a song title does: it asks you a question. “What could this group of sounds do with this reality in the world?” I remember we did a few takes of it, and it’s not that easy to play, actually. Sometimes when musicians get into this kind of thing like, “Oh, I’m playing something difficult” then they start to play it. difficult.
It kind of becomes a question of success. And finally, we came to this realization: that’s not what it is. It is not for that. So in fact, we had to sort of step back and do something softer and more spacious that invited the listener to be with us in a space based on contemplation.
I meant low key, but that might not be the right word. Maybe rather, haunted. Yes. This is how I would put it. And then I also wanted it to be something that I would feel comfortable playing for the kids. Since it’s a song for the kids of Flint, and it basically asks people to support the kids of Flint. So how do I do that, you know? How can the aesthetic of the song serve this movement or this community?
You mentioned that “Children of Flint” was difficult to play. And it reminds me of the second selection on this album, which is called “Combat Breathing” and features an unusual and difficult time signature of 11/8. What led you to this time signature? Or if it happened in a more organic way, what function do you think it serves within the track?
This piece was first written in December 2014 as a class action score at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. That particular moment, as you may remember, was the year Michael Brown was killed. It was the year Tamir Rice was killed, and it was the year Eric Garner was killed. And then I was commissioned to play this piece for solo piano at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.
And actually what I chose to do is give all the commission money to this collective called Dancing While Black to perform at the event. What they did was stage a die-in that was basically a way to do not start the show. And while I was playing this piece, they stood up to face the audience, which was mostly white audiences.
It was about that moment of confrontation. And to me, that 11/8 meter was about Eric Garner, his final audiences, which were those eleven times saying “I can’t breathe”. And so these are the eleven that this piece actually wears. It’s 11 bars, and it’s 11 beats per bar. And the baseline of that line is about both its tragedy and the challenge of this movement that the Black Lives Matter movement was at the time of its birth. It was therefore really a question of serving this movement. And that’s basically what this piece is trying to do.
I see that a lot of publications tell you about a jazz pianist, but I also see that you don’t use that term. “Creative Music” is a label that you use when necessary. Why would you want to avoid the term “jazz?” »What could be some of its limits applied to the sounds in which you are engaged?
Well, first of all, the point is that black musicians have resisted that word for a hundred years. So I learned that from the elders, that is not the word for us. There is a famous interview with [saxophonist John] Coltrane from 1966, when he was in Japan, and the interviewer asked him something about “What’s your take on the situation of jazz today?” ” or something like that. And he replies, “Jazz is the word they use to sell our music. But for me, this word does not exist. So all I’m saying is I didn’t make it up. Perhaps the most famous quote is Duke Ellington’s line, “Well, there are two kinds of music, good music and the other kind.”
There are all those times when artists have strategically resisted that word, because it limits what they seek to do and it revokes their ability to define their work on their own terms.