(L-R) Tyshawn Sorey, Vijay Iyer, Linda May Han Oh
Photo: Craig Marsden
Vijay Iyer On His New Trio Album 'Uneasy,' American Identity & Teaching Black American Music In The 21st Century
Vijay Iyer may be one of the foremost academics in 21st century music, but he's far more absorbed in the body than the brain. He peppers his language with references to the heart, spine and hips; his paramount rhythmic value is the pulse. And when describing how a terrific rhythm section glues together, he clasps together his index fingers and pulls.
"Let the record show that I'm making a weird hand gesture right now," the GRAMMY-nominated pianist, composer and Harvard Department of Music professor announces with a chuckle over Zoom. "Kind of hooked and pulling apart, but somehow hanging together." Iyer is describing a musical phenomenon called "the hookup," which perfectly describes the concision between him, bassist Linda May Han Oh and drummer Tyshawn Sorey in his latest trio.
Oh and Sorey aren't mere collaborators or accompanists; they're educators and composers in their own rights. Of Sorey's drumming, Iyer cites a "life-sustaining kind of magic." And of Oh's bass playing, "Her awareness of and relation to pulse, it's like micro-detail," he says. Those qualities and more can be found on Uneasy, the trio's first studio record, which drops April 9 on ECM Records. The album is a mix of topical material "Children of Flint" with Iyer originals ("Combat Breathing") and standards ("Night and Day") from deep in their wheelhouse.
Most importantly, Iyer considers the pair to be his musical family; together, they're his stronghold through a racially and sociopolitically turbulent time. And with the tragic Atlanta spa shootings in the rearview, the cover—where the three musicians' names float around an out-of-focus Statue of Liberty—is a side-eyed glance at what it means to be an American.
GRAMMY.com spoke with Vijay Iyer about the architecture of a trio record and his feelings on American identity in the wake of anti-Asian violence. Plus, just in time for Music In Our Schools Month, he explores how educators can teach Black American music more fairly and accurately in the 21st century.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
I love trio albums. To me, Bill Evans' Sunday at the Village Vanguard is the gold standard. Recently, I've connected greatly with Bill Frisell's Valentine. Uneasy is another excellent one. So, what is it about the power of a trio, in your estimation? To me, it has the integrity of a triangle in architecture.
Oh, so many things. There's both the disparateness of it, in the sense that we're each doing pretty seemingly qualitatively different things. Maybe the piano and drums have more in common, let's say, but still, the materials we're working with are so different.
Then, at the same time, everything is done with the hands and the feet, to a certain extent. In particular, that means that there's no literal breath involved in anything you hear. So there's a certain kind of tactile quality because of that. Every sound you hear is the result of a touch of some kind.
And, that any lyricism is sort of an illusion, in the sense that when you hear a melody that connects, you are being invited to imagine a voice that's not there, you know? Imagine a sort of breath that is not directly involved in the sounds you're hearing. So, that has a certain kind of suspended quality because of that. It's both a suspension of disbelief and a handmade universe. That's one detail about it that is intriguing.
The other side of it is, at some level, I don't care what the hands are doing as a listener. I care about something more central. Meaning, what do I connect to when I hear musicians in action? What do I, as a listener, as an observer, find myself relating to sonically? What I find myself relating to sonically is a sense of pulse that comes from the center of the body. From the heart, from the spine, from the torso, from the hips, you know? Not from the hands.
So, that's a funny paradox. Why is the trio the rhythm section? Why is it that somehow, by touching and hitting things, we're expressing something central? How do what the hands do reflect where the heart is, or what the center of the body is doing? How do we conjure these qualities of motion that compel a listener to move, to not use the hands, but move the body?
That feels like a paradox to me—or at least a puzzle, or some kind of challenge. How is it that we, through the actions of our hands, can summon the actions of a body—or a multitude of bodies, even? How do we conjure pulse? What that means is that how we play together is by connecting body-to-body in that way—connecting spine to spine. The hands are just kind of—well, they're extremities. So there's sort of the result of deeper connection. The actions of the hands and their apparent coordination amongst all six is the result of something much deeper. And because of that, they can have, like I said, a disparate quality—almost a seeming disunity—on a certain level and still be connected mysteriously from within.
That allows for a really interesting kind of polyphony—a kind that can have this kind of rough-and-tumble quality. Because it's about things falling. The impulse is previous to it, you know? I guess what I'm saying is that whatever way we're synchronizing internally, sonically, what you hear is merely a reflection of that. The center of the music is somehow not sounded. That's the miraculous, illusory quality of it. I don't if this makes any sense.
Vijay Iyer performing in Berlin in 2016. Photo: Stefan Hoederath/Redferns
It does make sense. Because the way that Bill Evans Trio record fires up—it's a shuffle on the snare here, a piano vamp there, and it's not gelling right off the bat. But then the triangle settles on its base, as it were.
I think my iconic trio music has a different kick to it, maybe. Maybe it has to do with the role of the drummer in particular, as more than an accompanist. I think my iconic trio album is Money Jungle. You know that record?
Yeah. You don't hear them and think, "Wow, these guys have been playing together forever!" or something like that. What you're kind of gripped by is the complex and even contentious relationship among them and how they kind of lurch. The qualities of motion are so intense. There are moments where they're gliding and dancing and there are moments where it feels like combat or something. So, that's one point of reference.
Another point of reference is Ahmad Jamal, Live at the Pershing. Which is so much about groove at play—play in the sense of playing with form and playing with elements. It's not soloistic, for the most part. It's not like, "I'm going to play, then you're going to play. I'm going to comp for you," or something like that. It's actually that they're creating this totality and it keeps breathing and flexing and changing color, changing energy, changing dynamic. So, it's very much a collective enterprise at all times.
Those are two points of reference, but then I also think about rhythm sections, just in general. James Brown's rhythm section, or The Meters. Not piano trio-specific, even. Just how a deep pulse can be expressed in this composite way.
I saw this trio at Jazz Standard back in 2019. It's obvious you, Linda and Tyshawn have wonderful synergy, but I'm curious as to what that synergy is. What do you enjoy about the chemical reaction generated by this specific combination?
I think what anyone wants out of any rhythm section is a certain quality of pulse—a certain sense of drive, what they call "the hookup" between bass and drums, let's say. Often, that has to do with how each one of them relates to the pulse and how maybe that creates a sustained—[clasps index fingers and pulls]. Let the record show that I'm making a weird hand gesture right now—kind of hooked and pulling apart, but somehow hanging together.
So there's something about that balance. It's elusive in the sense that it's not merely like, "Oh, so-and-so plays behind the beat and so-and-so plays on top of the beat." Sometimes it's that, but often, it's a little more nuanced than that.
In any case, there's a real attentiveness to that quality from both of them that I hear in every sound they make together. Like, where are you in relation to time and in relation to pulse, specifically? How are you expressing pulse? How is it being expressed through what you do?
Every sound you make is also rhythm, and every rhythm that you make together sets up a rhythmic relation. So, how is that rhythmic relation being expressed? It pops with that. It has this nice drive and intensity and focus, you know?
The other thing is how they listen, both of them. I've played with Tyshawn for 20 years. He's like family to me. We've had this delightful adventure together for half our lives in all kinds of ways, in all kinds of music-making. Teaching and learning and traveling and eating weird food together and losing our bags. Getting pulled over by security together. All kinds of stuff. There's a deep bond there, and that didn't just come out of nowhere, you know. It didn't just come out because we happened to be in the same place at the same time, or something. It's actually because of how he listens, and how I listen to him listening, and how we relate that way.
It's about his musical memory and how I can attend to that. It's about a certain shared aesthetic, I would say. A certain kind of balance of stillness and wildness. I guess by "wild," I mean a taste for intensity and for even extremes of intensity. Not "wild," per se, because it's not like he does anything that's disordered. Actually, everything he does is generating order. That's one thing I eventually realized in playing with him, is that it's all support. It's all structure, every sound he makes. It's all deeply informed by not just everything that's happening, but by many histories of music-making that he's tapped into.
I've said this elsewhere about him and just about drummers in general. I mean, I've talked a lot about Marcus Gilmore, who I've also worked with for many years. I got to know and work with Ralph Peterson, who I can't believe is gone. I've gotten to know folks like Jeff "Tain" Watts and Jack DeJohnette. And there's Marcus's grandfather, Roy Haynes, who just turned 96!
Getting to know all these incredible drummers—Billy Hart, another—[is a matter of] knowing that they are aware of much more than they're usually given credit for, musically. There's a deep compositional awareness. They're incredible listeners. They hear everything. I'm not exaggerating! Andrew Cyrille, another example. I've had great experiences making music with him.
There's kind of a perspicuous vantage on everything—an awareness of everything. Channeling that, there's a deeply informed and informational way of playing. It's not just playing a groove or playing a pattern. It's actually where you work with sound to complement and lift up what's happening. To conduct the energy of the entire ensemble even while not being given credit for doing so. There's a profundity to the art of drumming that is way beyond the way it's usually characterized, you know? Tyshawn is one of the exemplars of that incredible artistry. That incredible awareness and creative, life-sustaining kind of magic.
Tyshawn Sorey performing in Chicago in 2014. Photo: Raymond Boyd/Getty Images
With Linda, she came to the U.S. in the aughts—sometime in the early 2000s. I remember hearing that she had done a thesis on Dave Holland and did a bunch of transcriptions of him playing with different drummers. I sort of learned more about her; she had really gone in deep on something. I always appreciated that.
I remember talking to Ambrose [Akinmusire] about her because her first album that she released, Entry, was a trio with Ambrose and Obed Calvaire. That was a bold step, first of all, for a bass player to make an album as a leader at that age. She was probably in her early twenties. And to make it an odd format—there aren't that many records that are trumpet, bass and drums. Maybe a Bill Dixon record somewhere? I don't know—not many things.
So, yeah, the transparency of that. I remember Ambrose saying, "Look, she really has that type of ear. She can hear on a really high level." I knew how Ambrose could hear, which is not that different from how Tyshawn hears, in the sense of, again, that deep awareness of everything. When someone plays something, there's no mystery about what it is. There could be a mystery about why it is. [Laughs.]
But her ability to hear on that level, and then her real detail and care with timekeeping and her awareness of and relation to pulse, it's like micro-detail. And then just getting around on the instrument with real ease. I've heard her in all kinds of contexts, you know. She's got a great career as a composer and a bandleader, but I've also heard her play with Kenny Barron, with Pat Metheny, with all kinds of folks. She always keeps things aloft, and I've played with her many times over the years in lots of different ad hoc contexts.
I just found a photo of her and me and Becca Stevens. We did a couple of trio sets, just the three of us. There's a time when she and I and E.J. Strickland played in a quintet with Ravi Coltrane and Dave Douglas. There's an improvised session we did at The Stone with Imani Izuri and DJ Val Jeanty—DJ and Linda and me and this vocalist. And then there's all the stuff we did at Banff together. Somewhere, there's a recording of her and me and Grégoire Maret, the harmonica player. There's all these wild aggregates where she just holds down the center of things with such clarity and ferocity. It was in the course of doing all these ad-hoc, thrown-together things that we realized we already knew how to play together.
I set up a trio set for us at the Standard, probably the first one you came to, in early '19. Then we were at Banff again that summer, August 2019, and it was toward the end of that program that we just wanted to blow off steam. We said, "Hey, let's just play a trio set. It'll just be for the students. It won't be for an audience or anything," just to do it. Just to serve the music and be a community, you know.
It felt so alive. It had this flash of "Yeah, this is a thing." It had its own truth to it. You can't deny it. Right then, I just said, "You guys want to make a record?" and a few months later, we recorded it. I think what that sound is has to do with that excitement. That spark of possibility combined with that level of awareness that the two of them have about all the musical structure and information. And then both of them as composers having a dynamic sense of what can happen.
Linda May Han Oh performing in Monterey, California, in 2017. Photo: Education Images/Universal Images Group/Getty Images
In a recent Zoom panel, you talked about the cover—the Statue of Liberty triangulated by the three musicians' names. Given that the three names recall three different racial descents, they serve as commentary on the nature of American identity. I'm sure the events of this week gave you pause on the otherness that Americans of different colors and backgrounds are feeling.
It isn't just that it happened. It is that, but it's also what that police captian from Cherokee County said, and also the way it was handled by the media. That's when you go, "This is all connected." The idea that some white kid—not kid, a young white man—who's disgruntled about whatever, his own supposed sex addiction, can blame the most vulnerable people and then murder them. And then that can be treated as almost normal. Almost excusable. The discourse around it was "Well, he had a bad day."
And then we keep seeing pictures of him and his name constantly essentially glorifying and humanizing him. "He went to church." That whole pattern of humanizing the white male killer, and meantime, I had dig around to find even a mention of any of the names of the victims.
You described Tyshawn as "family." What role does communing with this chosen family and making music together play in that healing process and finding a future through the wreckage?
It is the sound of a certain kind of communion. That was Don Cherry's phrase: "complete communion," which means not just with one another, but with something larger and deeper than any of us. And it's been so long since we've been able to do that, really, in any kind of regular way.
Being able to put this album now is to say, "We can still do this. We can still be among each other in a caring way, in a way that's about listening and co-construction and facing the world together." That's basically what it means to me.
Because the lead single was "Children of Flint," people might be tempted to think this is all topical material. But from what I understand, some of it is simply material from your wheelhouses. Cole Porter's "Night and Day" comes to mind. What common thread is there between all these tunes, if any?
I wouldn't say it was forced into any kind of common theme. The impulse to make the record was that we felt like as a band. At that level, it's like, "It doesn't matter what we play, actually. Let's just document something so we can remember this sound and share it with people."
That said, then it was a certain kind of curatorial exercise to me to pull together material that I felt like playing with them—that I felt could be given a certain kind of life and context. I wanted to know what it would sound like. I wanted to hear it. I wanted to hear us playing this music, you know? I wanted to hear the two of them take on some of this material.
And then some of it was new. "Children of Flint" was written that fall. "Retrofit" was written that summer. There was another new piece I didn't end up including on the album. "Allomothers," is relatively new, I guess. So, it was about just gathering together a set of stimuli for us, a set of impulses: "Hey, let's work with this. Let's bring this into being."
Some of that involved some studying. Geri Allen's "Drummer's Song" is a piece that you have to study to play. And it wasn't just that it was "Night and Day;" it's that it was Joe Henderson's version of "Night and Day" from Inner Urge. There's something different about that version. [Laughs].
He reharmonizes it in a way that's not exactly Coltrane-esque, but something in that family. [John] Coltrane went through a period in the late '50s where everything had what are called "Giant Steps" changes. "Countdown" is actually his version of Miles Davis' "Tune Up," but with a whole bunch of extra chords stuck in there to make it almost fiendishly hard! What does that elicit from you? There's an etude-like quality in the sense of working through some set of challenges to elicit something new from you. I mean you, the musician. You, the music-maker. You, the improviser.
That's basically what Joe Henderson did with "Night and Day," so it was that. It didn't matter that it was "Night and Day," actually. It mattered that it was that impulse, that transformative gesture that Joe Henderson brought to it. And then it mattered that it was that band playing it. Elvin Jones, McCoy Tyner, Bob Cranshaw, Joe Henderson. That band just sailing through that really wild arrangement.
Then there was, like, "Let's study that," because we study what other musicians have done. We study it hard. We put in the time. That's what both of them do just as a matter of course. What that means is I can just say, "Hey, let's try this," and within a matter of minutes, Linda has learned it. [Laughs.] Beyond that, it's like I'm learning from her about it.
With my material, it was really curatorial over a span of 20 years' worth of compositions of mine, "Configurations" being the oldest and "Children of Flint" being the newest.
It's not that any particular album is political, but at almost any moment in my musical life, I'm listening to what's happening outside and that is informing what I do, why I do it and with whom I do it. And for whom I do it. The first two pieces on the album are probably the most "political." But it's more like each of them was serving a specific purpose—serving a specific cause. And by serving, I mean literally serving. Trying to support an existing movement on the ground.
March is Music In Our Schools Month, and I wanted to talk about the intersection between jazz—or, Black American music, whatever language you want to use—and academia. You're in academia, Tyshawn's in academia, I don't remember if Linda is…
Yeah, she teaches at Berklee, actually.
There you go. I don't remember when jazz education began in the U.S., but it wasn't around in the '50s or '60s, as far as I know. Musicians were learning from each other—teacher to student and peer to peer. Now, in many ways, this music lives in universities. Can you talk about that connection and how it can be helpful or problematic in some respect?
[Long silence.] Can I? [Laughs.]
I don't know if I can. I think in both Tyshawn's and my case, neither of us pretends to be a jazz anything in academia. We just show up as ourselves—as the artists that we are. He's a composition professor at the University of Pennsylvania. I started a doctoral program at Harvard called Creative Practices and Critical Inquiry.
I never use the word "jazz" in any of my courses. That's not to say we don't study this history, but I also appreciate the history of people rejecting the word "jazz." That's a deep history. That's a 100-year-old history of people pushing back against the confining labeling impulse of the music business, which has historically been a white business—a white male-run business.
So when Black musicians have sought to define their work on their own terms, we have to listen to that history. In the '60s, people started using the phrase "creative music." In the '60s! That's more than half a century ago, right? That label's been around for a long time, alongside and pushing back against the label of jazz.
Also, there's this history of music-makers creating music on their own terms, sometimes in a way that you can't categorize. If you listen to Bud Powell's piece "Glass Enclosure," you can't listen to that and say, "Well, that's a jazz tune," or something like that. You have to crack open all categories to parse it, even—to make sense of it.
Or a moment like "Strange Fruit," Billie Holiday. Very intently exploding the category and defying her own audiences to think about the world outside, you know? And to think about their own relationship to it and their own complicity with it. I would call that something like experimental music, because it's doing something that pushes on every dimension of the category and kind of explodes the frame.
There are all kinds of examples. Afternoon of a Georgia Faun, Marion Brown. Another example. Or Alice Coltrane's recordings. On at least one of her albums, she recorded an entire section of "Rite of Spring." What's that doing on an Alice Coltrane record? What is her relationship to that history? Why is she evoking a Russian composer, a piece from 1913?
I think these categories keep undoing themselves if you really pay attention to what an artist has been doing all this time.
Right. So, how do we teach that? The fraught history of the category, the forces that shaped it and continue to shape it, and the choices artists have made, often in defiance of categorization and larger systems of oppression? It's about looking at books like Amiri Baraka's Blues People, Angela Davis' Blues Legacies and Black Feminism, Gerald Horne's Jazz and Justice, Robin Kelley's book on Thelonious Monk, Art Taylor's Notes and Tones and George Lewis' book on the AACM. Understanding how what it really is is a history of social movements, actually.
If you look at the "creative music movement," as Sarita McCoy Gregory called it, what was it that Black musicians were doing in the '60s and '70s, around the time of the Black Power movement? They were self-organizing and making music on their own terms, often starting their own labels, their own venues, their own presenting organizing, their own artist collectives.
If you go to jazz school, like the Manhattan School of Music or something, you don't learn about any of this because it defies the logic of jazz education. Jazz education as we know it today was an entrepreneurial venture by white men in the '60s and '70s.
So when you look at the "Real Book" that was made at that period, that I had in the '80s when I was in high school, what did it have in it? And what didn't it have in it? It didn't have any music by Mary Lou Williams or Nina Simone or Alice Coltrane or Lil Hardin. It didn't have anything you would associate with the avant-garde or the Black Power movement, like Archie Shepp or Albert Ayler. Certainly no Cecil Taylor. Maybe one or two Ornette Coleman tunes from the '50s. So it basically ignored all these pivotal Black women and pivotal Black activists from the '60s.
Instead, all the Black music it contains is from the past. Some Coltrane tunes. Some Miles Davis and Wayne Shorter tunes from the '50s and '60s. A lot of Duke Ellington, Mingus. But then all the "modern music" is by white men. Chick Corea. Gary Burton. Steve Swallow. Dave Holland. Keith Jarrett. They're all in there, right?
Why are they all in the "Real Book" and why aren't any of these other things? It's stuff like that. We have to historicize what we call "jazz education" and understand it to be this weird phenomenon that emerged in a certain moment and then retold the history of the music in a way that erased more than it retained.
I like that a lot. The idea of telling the story again more accurately and inclusively, rather than locking it in an ivory tower or excluding anybody.
Well, really, hearing it from artists. We had Henry Threadgill in our class. [Saxophonist and composer] Yosvany [Terry] and I co-teach a course this term. We bore witness to his whole life of music-making that starts before any of that happened.
We also had Cécile McLorin Salvant there. Hearing them back-to-back was like, "Well, they're dealing with similar constraints, and they both have a quirky, defiant streak, and they're both resisting categorization." They're in very different phases in their lives—they're separated by close to 50 years.
We start to rethink the history from the ground up and try to account for what has been… not forgotten, but sort of left out of the standard narrative. The other side of it is like, "Help people make music together with a detailed understanding of what's happened before and what's possible." But also let people invent, you know? Let people invent together.
I've heard people make some unprecedented stuff, and if you support that process, then you're actually stimulating—or not just stimulating, you're recreating something like what it was like when these artists we know and love came together 50 and 60 and 70 and 80 years ago without the burden of a genre to tell them what to do.