Jazz Innovator Vijay Iyer on the Music That Made Him


“Part of what this list narrates for me is how I became a music-maker in particular,” says Vijay Iyer, talking about the key influences he came up with for this interview. “Not just as a player, but as somebody who wanted to work from the inside.”

The notion of “inside” suggests a complex set of nuances for Iyer, a pianist and composer who began his career on the margins of improvised music, and now operates somewhere near its center. An artist for the storied ECM label and a MacArthur Fellow who teaches at Harvard University in both the Department of Music and the Department of African and African American Studies, he’s also now perennially voted Artist of the Year in DownBeat’s venerable International Critics Poll. His musical stewardship even takes physical form in the narrow front parlor of his Harlem brownstone, which now houses a nine-foot-long Yamaha grand piano that previously belonged to jazz legend Chick Corea; purchased at auction by an anonymous benefactor after Corea’s death last year, it was subsequently entrusted to Iyer.

Partly because of his high academic credentials—and also, no doubt, due to some ethnic stereotyping—Iyer has often had to fend off characterizations of his music as “cerebral.” But the shifting layers of complexity in his music usually produce a visceral effect on albums like last year’s Uneasy, featuring Linda May Han Oh on bass and Tyshawn Sorey on drums, and 2016’s A Cosmic Rhythm With Each Stroke, recorded with one of his mentors, trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith. The crucial role of the body in music cognition was in fact the subject of Iyer’s dissertation, which helped reframe a Eurocentric bias in cognitive studies. Talking about the music that shaped his life experience, Iyer often mentions how it resonates in the body, as a physical sensation.

In similar fashion, Iyer took the curation of his 5-10-15-20 playlist as an opportunity to reflect not just on the music itself but also how it has personally changed his perspective, charted his course, or held him up. In his building’s garden-level space that often serves as a rehearsal studio, he reflects, “There’s another version that’s just about my musical education, but looking at these specific years, I was like, ‘OK, let me just be honest about who I was at those moments.’”

Vijay Iyer: I distinctly remember standing in line to see Star Wars. There was a line around the building, and we were just past the number of people they could let into a screening, so the door literally slammed in our faces. I cried, but we waited around for the next screening. I can’t say that I could really fathom what I was seeing, but the grandeur of the opening fanfare—coupled with the then-futuristic landscape—all seemed so high-tech to me.

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