Vijay Iyer and “Reaching” in Jazz Music

A few weeks back I witnessed Vijay Iyer, one of my favorite pianists, play a mesmerizing concert with the Vijay Iyer trio featuring Stephan Crump and Marcus Gilmore. It was without a doubt the most spectacular performance I have ever seen, and I suspect it will be my favorite concert that I will ever see. What made the performance so astounding was that after Iyer introduced himself and spoke a little about his hopes for the evening in a monologue that made the event all the more intimate, and playing “Geese” from his most recent album release, the phenomenal Break Stuff, the trio proceeded to play an unceasing medley of pieces for at least forty minutes, never once letting the groove die. It was an unusual experience to be continuously grooving to jazz music and it made the concert unforgettable, as the medley built to a climax in the piece “Hood”, also from Break Stuff, where everything aligned, as the trio grew to an explosive force as Iyer explored pounding disjointed rhythms of angelic upper-register octave voicings, creating such a beautiful tension that when he finally released the audience from his grip by returning to the propulsive dance-beat groove the audience collectively let out an audible gasp from the suspense and release.

There is some debate as to what “jazz” is, and whether the word should be abandoned. That’s a nuanced topic for another day, and even noting that I hesitate to call Iyer a jazz musician as his music is so original that it does not always fit that categorization, I had a realization about an essential characteristic of jazz music from watching his performance.

Iyer wrote his dissertation on the embodiment of rhythm for his PhD from USC Berkeley in music cognition, and his main claim is roughly that due to neural mirroring we cannot help but visualize the motions to the performance of rhythms. We must see the rhythm in our mind’s eye in order to experience it.

At the end of the performance that night, Iyer said that he hoped that he had reached us, the audience, with his music. I truly felt that he had, and the use of the word “reach” in particular struck me as quite right. During one of his most powerful solos, Iyer created an illusion of infinite ascension by nearly chromatically ascending three notes, descending a whole step, then continuing this pattern again and again in a sequence that felt like he was just reaching higher and higher into the heavens. Perhaps, like with rhythms, we cannot help but visualize melodies as movements, at least the frequently chromatic melodic lines played in jazz music. We hear this ascension as reaching for higher and higher and more soulful notes, but perhaps what best explains their soulfulness is not their individual pitches, but that collectively they reach higher, and we hear, and see, and feel this reaching, and we cannot help but feel this activity of ascending as a  reaching out to us in a way that deeply connects with us. It is this reaching that is so essential to jazz and makes jazz such a compelling art form.

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  1. #1 by jazztraveler on May 10, 2015 - 10:14 am

    Very nice post, thanks for sharing your view. I saw Iyer at the end of last year together with duo duo with Rudresh Mahanthappa. It also was an amazing concert. I have not yet heard the new record you are referring to, but will buy it at the next occassion!

    • #2 by ausomeawestin on May 10, 2015 - 12:16 pm

      Thanks for the kind words and for reading my post! I would love to hear him with Mahanghappa, that must have been quite a performance — they are great foils for each other.

  2. #3 by jmeqvist on May 10, 2015 - 3:41 pm

    This is a great post. Unfortunately my knowledge of jazz is quite dated, as I have not found a ton of contemporary jazz artists that I really enjoy, so I had never heard of Iyer, but your description of his performance and explanation of our relation to rhythm and melody makes me think of my experience of listening to some of Mingus’ live performances.

    Also, thanks for posting this because after listening to a bit of Iyer I feel the need to continue exploring his music. He makes some of the most interesting music I have heard!

    • #4 by ausomeawestin on May 27, 2015 - 7:38 pm

      Thanks for the kind words, and glad to be in some way responsible for your hearing Iyer. If you like Iyer I’d also recommend Jason Moran, another pianist with sympathies for modern dissonance, but with more swing than Iyer, drawing from gospel and R&B.

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