From Bill's Desk

A note on the Vijay Iyer Sextet

It should be no secret to anybody who has followed McCarter’s jazz presentations in recent years that I am second to none in my admiration for Vijay Iyer–almost to the point of obsession! In many respects he is the embodiment of America’s jazz continuum. And it’s reassuring to know that I am not alone in sharing this belief–along with Harvard (where is a professor and its first jazz artist-in-residence); with those who select the MacArthur “genius grants” (2017); with Manfred Eicher, whose ECM label singlehandedly represents a jazz community where Vijay has joined Keith Jarrett as its most prominent keyboard exponent; and with Nate Chinen, the former jazz critic for The New York Times whose book Playing Changes serves as both bible and map for who and what is happening in jazz today. In his book, Chinen devotes an entire chapter to Iyer–the only musician so recognized–as an artist who is “stirring things up, and not just in musical terms.” Iyer himself said it best way back in 2005:

“With all of my music, I am interested in probing this loose constellation of concepts: change, stasis, repetition, evolution, attraction, repulsion, composition, improvisation, noise, technology, race, ethnicity, hybridity.”

So when you stop to consider Iyer’s credentials and accomplishment in so many areas, it’s easy to see why a reference to him as a kind of  “renaissance man” of contemporary jazz is not only singularly appropriate but defines the term: pianist, composer, arranger, leader, scholar, author, critic, teacher, producer, festival director–it goes on and on. And how many jazz pianists can you name with a PhD? The word “multi-disciplinary” applied to Iyer is almost insulting and doesn’t begin to do justice to his 22 albums, as soloist and leader of every combination and collaboration right down to his latest, Far From Over, with his first Sextet–almost a “big band” for him in one sense. Who else could command a roster of all-star collaborators like these, including Tyshawn Sorey, who already has a MacArthur award of his own, or Stephan Crump, who was part of Iyer’s original 2000 quartet (which also included Princeton’s own Rudresh Mahanthappa)?

Iyer continues to live and create in his own universe, constantly surprising and challenging. One never knows what he will come up with next, whether in terms of format, genre, or context. And as always, as both scholar and writer, he is his own best spokesman. As you listen to the music of his Sextet, keep these words of his in mind:

“It was the trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith [with whom Iyer has recorded] who said that the function of music is to transform that (observer’s) life in just an instant, so that when they go back to the routine part of living, they carry with them a little bit of something else. In a time of fierce urgency and precarity. . . this unnamed “something else” that you might carry back with you . . . feels as crucial as ever.”

W.W. Lockwood, Jr.  


Vijay Iyer Sextet

with Graham Haynes, cornet, fluegelhorn & electronica
Mark Shim, tenor sax
Steve Lehman, alto sax
Stephan Crump, bass
Tyshawn Sorey, drums

If jazz today has a Renaissance man, it is Vijay Iyer—pianist, bandleader, composer, educator, Harvard professor, MacArthur Award fellow, and regular winner of every jazz poll under the sun.