Vijay Iyer wants to be heard loud and clear


NEW YORK — As enchanted staircases go, the entry to the Village Vanguard is tough to beat. Duck down the steps and you’re walking into one of the most storied rooms in American music. You’re also stepping out of the cruelty of the world. On a recent Tuesday evening, at the start of a sold-out five-night residency, the pianist Vijay Iyer acknowledged the thickening psychic weight of the news cycle — creeping authoritarianism, a war that continues to kill children by the thousands — by explaining to the assembled that he’d titled his new album “Compassion” because “I wanted to hear that word as much as possible.”

Then, Iyer and the members of his trio — Linda May Han Oh on bass, Tyshawn Sorey on drums — took to their instruments as if they were trying to hear each other as much as possible, racing into an elite zone of virtuoso communication, playing with a precision that refused to sacrifice feeling or groove, everything loud, everything clear.

Wrapping the word “compassion” around that ungentle, exhilarated sound felt both strange and exactly right. This is a hyper-communicative group that prioritizes clarity, as if to make their expert gestures as legible as possible to one another. On top of that, all three are accomplished composers, which means they’re all highly attentive to the shape of the music, and in Iyer’s newest work, they frequently sound like they’re building something massive and delicate in a hurry. Somehow, it’s a sound that isn’t trying to impress you so much as involve you.

“It starts with us as a group,” Iyer says, describing the dynamic over coffee the following afternoon, “moving together, and feeling together, and then revealing that process in such a way that people want to move and feel with us — which means making transparent, making bare, making available to the listener our listening process.” Iyer says he can hear the audience whooping-whistling-laughing whenever the trio lands one of its rhythmic triple Salchows, but he wonders whether the applause isn’t actually for the music itself. “Maybe what people pick up on,” he says, “are moments when we heard each other.”

At 52, Iyer might be at the top of his career, but it’s hard to tell. How do you measure? By a profile that keeps rising? Or a creative tenacity that keeps broadening? Shortly after being awarded a MacArthur “genius” grant in 2013, Iyer received a lifetime appointment as a professor at Harvard, and since has continued making himself into one of the most rigorous composers working inside and outside jazz. “Compassion” is his second album with Oh, 39, and Sorey, 43, who Iyer describes as players with “almost superhuman listening capacity” who can “remember everything we’ve ever done” — dating back a decade to when the three originally crossed paths at the International Workshop in Jazz & Creative Music in Banff, Alberta.

Oh — an agile and prismatic bassist who used to mail-order Iyer’s CDs when she was still a student back in Australia — says their chemistry still feels entirely fresh. “What I love about playing with this trio is this idea of really accepting what is happening, and embracing it,” she says. “There’s this idea of acceptance, but [with] urgency. … If you’re fighting it, it isn’t going to work. You have to say yes.”

Iyer goes even further back with Sorey (also a MacArthur recipient, also an Ivy League professor), who began playing with the pianist in 2001. As a percussionist with an astonishing command of tone and color, Sorey says he treasures “being able to work with these two musicians who have such a welcome sense of being. … They have such a composerly way of playing music, such a very strong sense of form. What more can I do to serve the music? The answer is to treat the instrument as a sound instrument rather than one [used] strictly for timekeeping.”

All of this simpatico energy makes “Compassion” feel like a highlight in Iyer’s long path. After falling under the spell of jazz as a teen, he taught himself to play piano, then went on to study math and physics at Yale, and eventually earned his doctorate studying music cognition at the University of California at Berkeley while simultaneously launching a recording career. After more than a decade of grinding away, a pair of unflappable albums — 2009’s “Historicity” and 2012’s “Accelerando” — seemed to confirm Iyer’s “great hope” status in the jazz world, but by then he’d already begun steering his improvisations and compositions beyond the margins of the tradition, and in 2013, he began recording for the European jazz and classical label ECM. Around that time, label co-founder Manfred Eicher told the New York Times that he admired Iyer for his “broadness.” Today, Iyer describes ECM as “malleable.” It remains a good fit.

Co-produced by Iyer and Eicher, “Compassion” was recorded in 2022, and the album’s liner notes — penned by Iyer — dig into the mysterious notion of how instrumental music can “be ‘about’ something.” A trio of especially lucid compositions (“Maelstrom,” “Tempest,” “Panegyric”) memorialize the losses of the pandemic. Another three pieces (“Where I Am,” “Ghostrumental,” “It Goes”) are related to the writer Eve L. Ewing’s poems about Emmett Till. The knotty melody of “Arch” honors the hardships endured by the Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who Iyer describes in his notes as “fearless.”

Is that what he wants the clarity of this music to communicate? A fearlessness? Without answering directly, Iyer cites a jewel of an idea that one of his frequent collaborators, the 82-year-old trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith, dropped at the Banff workshop one summer: “Someone asked him a basic question like, ‘What is an artist?’ And [Smith] said, ‘An artist is someone who stands up and tells the truth without fear.’” Iyer laughs and shakes his head. “It almost brings me to tears how true, and how simple, and how revolutionary that idea is.”

Another big truth in Iyer’s new work might have something to do with abundance. As we all try to survive this relentless information age that continuously disorients and depletes us, Iyer can dash across the keyboard as if rearranging the world’s abundance into something organized and purposeful. Sometimes.

“I think music is a way that we demonstrate to ourselves that we can find order, we can create it, we can defy the general entropic sense of the world, the feeling of things constantly falling apart,” Iyer says. “But the other part of that is the unmaking, as well. Allowing noise. Allowing disorder. Allowing chaos. Allowing the unknown. Not just tolerating it, but welcoming it. That force is always present. Anything can fall apart. The thing I learned the most from playing with elder musicians is how one recovers in moments of crisis, even in purely musical terms.”

The compositions on “Compassion” clearly aim to reckon with all kinds of societal calamities, but what qualifies as a crisis purely in musical terms? Iyer squints into his coffee and flashes back to a moment of lost concentration on the bandstand. “‘I can’t believe so-and-so showed up at my gig. Why are they here?,’” he says. “But somehow I was still playing while my mind was thinking that. So who was that person who was still playing while my conscious mind was somewhere else? And also, who’s the person who’s noticing this? You realize in those moments that the self is an illusion. Even the unity of consciousness is an illusion. … This is the thing that’s consistently revealed to me making music with Linda and Tyshawn.”

What he’s saying makes it even easier to hear this trio as a rejection of self, an embrace of collectivity, a group where individual virtuosic exactitude operates entirely in service of unity and cooperation, all channels open and clear — and if you really open your ears, you might be able to get right in there with them. Here’s how Iyer thanked the crowd at the end of that Vanguard set: “We heard you listening. You sounded good.”


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