Jazz from an Indian-American Perspective

01042011_Vijay_2009_300 Michael Gallant in America.gov:

For many musicians, playing the fearless jazz improvisations of American pianist Thelonious Monk and the undulating rhythmic intricacies of Carnatic music from southern India might seem like an odd combination, but for Indian-American jazz pianist Vijay Iyer, it is second nature.

When he is not touring around the world, Iyer lives with his family in New York, where he records and performs regularly and teaches music to students at New York University, the New School University and the Manhattan School of Music. His 16 albums range from solo piano performances to intricate trio, quartet and quintet interpretations, as well as more unconventional groupings. The 2004 album In What Language?, for example, combines jazz influences with hip-hop and a spoken-word performance by poet Mike Ladd, drawing on musical traditions from South Asia and Africa. Iyer said he and Ladd created the song-cycle album as an examination of diversity and tolerance for the post–September 11 world.

Iyer wasn’t always set on being a musician; he holds a master’s degree in physics as well as an interdisciplinary doctorate in technology and the arts that he earned at the University of California, Berkeley. Iyer sees an overlap between his scientific background and his musical creativity: He understands the physics behind music and examines the engineering inherent in creating a musical composition.

Prolific and successful as he is, Iyer was not always widely accepted as a pianist or composer. But through a commitment to writing music that melded his influences — Indian and American, especially — Iyer has found a new pathway in American jazz, helping to open the door for new generations of adventurous artists.