Jazz Profiles: Vijay Iyer - Beyond the Next Big Thing

Grammy-nominated composer-pianist Vijay Iyer plays stunning music as a highly celebrated and award-winning soloist and with a trio and his all-star sextet. Here, associate editor of JazzTimes Jeff Tamarkin tries to keep up with Iyer's incredible musical output. 

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At some point in every great artist's career, terms like "rising star" and "up-and-coming" simply no longer apply. It's difficult to say exactly when Vijay Iyer made that transition, but there's absolutely no doubt that this extraordinarily gifted pianist and visionary composer has finally and definitively ascended beyond being the "next big thing."

None of that, however, is Iyer's concern: Jazz critics may still routinely scramble for new superlatives to bestow upon him with each award and magazine cover the native of Upstate New York notches, but like most artists, Iyer prefers to focus on what's ahead, not on past accomplishments.

Ask the 41-year-old son of Indian Tamil immigrants what he's working on, and he unreels a list of planned projects so long you wonder how he keeps track of it all. "I'm on the road a lot," he says, "and I've also been composing, writing chamber music. I've got a nice run of recent commissions—I wrote a piece last year for the Silk Road Ensemble and they're going to record it. I also did something for the string quartet Brooklyn Rider and something for the Bang on a Can All-Stars. I wrote a large project for the International Contemporary Ensemble in collaboration with filmmaker Prashant Bhargava—we premiered the work just last month. I also did a large project with Mike Ladd, the poet—a collaboration with young veterans from the post-9/11 wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Sometimes I just get nice opportunities," he adds after taking a short breath, in something of an understatement.

Iyer, it seems, hasn't stopped creating at that level of prolificacy since he first emerged on the jazz scene nearly two decades ago. He's released more than a dozen highly regarded albums as a leader—the most recent of which, last year's Accelerando, picked up just about every Album of the Year award jazz has to offer—and he's collaborated with an astounding array of artists in numerous disciplines. "Sometimes I just like a challenge that makes me step a little outside of my comfort zone," he says.

For all of his planning though, one thing Iyer keeps open-ended is where the next gig will take him. He knows that his April 27 Zankel Hall performance will feature his pianistic brilliance in solo, trio, and sextet configurations, but that's about it. "One reason I don't plan our set lists 100 percent is that so much depends on what happens, how the performance is going," he says. "With improvisational music, any given piece can manifest in a lot of different ways. So you want to be able to deal—not only with what you want to have happen, but with what actually happens. Hopefully, everyone is coming along with you every step of the way. I imagine it as a conversation with the audience. I never forget that the audience is there. I'm thinking about them every second—not just thinking about them, but listening to them, too."

Jeff Tamarkin is the associate editor of JazzTimes magazine.

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