A Conversation With: Jazz Pianist Vijay Iyer


Visi Talik in India Ink:

Q. When did you get into jazz?

A. I skipped grades to graduate high school at 16. At this time I started exploring jazz. I was listening to a lot of John Coltrane and others, and I was also listening to a lot of Indian classical music that I grew up with. I was composing my own music at this point, and getting ready for college as well.
Q. Where was college, and what happened there?
A. I got a B.S. in mathematics and physics from Yale College, and a masters in physics and an interdisciplinary Ph.D from the University of California in Berkeley. When I enrolled in the Ph.D program to study math and physics, I was already performing jazz piano. I was being presented in music festivals and invited to perform at prestigious clubs and concerts.

In 1995, I was coming out with my first solo album, I was a band leader putting together some great music, I decided to switch from a Ph.D in math and physics to one in the cognitive science of music from the University of California at Berkeley. I took the leap.

Q. In an essay, “New York Stories,” you wrote, “We don’t play “in a genre”; we play in the context of others, and we find ways to play with each other.” Can you describe how you have broken out of your “genre”?
A. It’s exactly that mentality. All the choices I make as an artist are inspired by the history of this music and this musical community that I’m a part of. And if you look at that history you see that it was always very smooth in terms of stylistic attributes and what was common was this collaborative orientation and a community orientation. It was something that contained a lot of experimentation and a lot of discipline, a lot of knowledge, and it sort of formed at the intersection of a lot of different extremes of knowledge.

People think of it as a genre but for the community of artists there’s really no such a thing. That’s sort of been my experience working with elders from that heritage and from that history. But it’s always been a space for collaboration and creation that is irrespective of marketplace notions of genre.

More here.