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Microstructures of feel
Vijay Iyer's music wrestles his intellect into sound.

By Derk Richardson

WHEN VIJAY IYER sits down to play the piano, he challenges himself with little tasks, like reconciling the mind-body dualism that has plagued Western civilization for much of the last 500 years. Iyer, who spent much of the 1990s in the Bay Area as an academic and an active participant in the new jazz and Asian improv music scenes, probably would not put it so grandiosely. More likely, as he did in a recent phone conversation from his apartment in upper Manhattan, he would say something about how "developing technique is a matter of developing an awareness of the range of your body" and about "paying attention to the physical problems of making music."

On the other hand, Iyer, a native New Yorker born to Indian immigrant parents, did earn a masters degree in physics and an interdisciplinary Ph.D. in music and cognitive science at UC Berkeley. He wrote a dissertation titled "Microstructures of Feel, Macrostructures of Sound: Embodied Cognition in West African and African-American Musics." He called his third CD Panoptic Modes (recently released on Red Giant Records), which he said refers to "the presence of multiple simultaneous levels of perception." And his wife's field of study at Columbia is computational biology. This is clearly a musician undaunted by enormous and complex intellectual concerns.

When Iyer returns to San Francisco for a concert Sat/2 at ODC Theater, however, he will not have his thesis in tow. (You can read the entire tome on his Web site, www.vijay-iyer.com.) Instead, he will be traveling with the same musicians with whom he recorded Panoptic Modes: alto saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa, acoustic bassist Stephan Crump, and drummer Derrek Phillips. The quartet will play music that touches on a variety of familiar and obscure reference points, including Thelonious Monk, McCoy Tyner, Herbie Nichols, Steve Coleman, and Cecil Taylor, while bristling with the unique passionate expressions of its players. Expect to hear pieces from the new CD, with such titles as "History Is Alive," "Configurations," Atlantean Tropes," "Numbers (For Mumia)," and "Circular Argument," as well as some of the new compositions that continually worm their way through the maze of Iyer's imagination.

Explaining the process he goes through to achieve such results, Iyer said, "Over the years I've generally approached things by creating situations for myself and the whole ensemble where we all have to learn how to act and interact within these structures. I like to create these forms for myself that create a challenge, like the complicated cross-rhythmic structure to the second piece on the album, 'Configurations.' When I first wrote it, I couldn't play it for shit. I really had to put myself through this process of learning how to play my own piece. Putting myself individually, and the group collectively, through that process has been very productive and causes a certain kind of growth that you wouldn't achieve otherwise. That's pretty much how I've gotten to where I am, never being content with what I already know how to do, because I never felt like I knew how to do that much."

That last confessional comment is not false humility; it derives from the fact that Iyer is a self-taught pianist. He did not start practicing technique diligently, he said, until 1997, after he had recorded his first two albums, Memoraphilia and Architextures. Now, he granted, "I'm in a position where I can execute my own music better and also write things for myself that I couldn't deal with before. I've developed my dexterity and skill to the point where I don't sound like I'm just barely making it."

An exploration of Iyer's Web site reveals that he has been dealing with much more than technical concerns in his development as a musician. As a member of the first demographically significant generation of South Asians born in the United States, he has grappled with, according to an article he wrote for the online publication ImprovisAsians Journal, "a pressure to conform to what I have been calling the 'Baubles, Bangles, and Beads' view of South Asia, namely the concept that the entirety of South Asian cultures can be emblemized by their purchasable items – fabrics, trinkets, fine arts, tasty foods, and watered-down glosses of our religious texts." His confrontation with cultural identity, he writes, involves fitting himself into the "nonstereotypical" role of artist and community activist, "in contrast with the stereotypical roles such as engineers and anesthesiologists at one extreme, or cab drivers and 7-11 storeowners at the other."

"I can't tell you exactly why I became a so-called 'jazz musician,' " Iyer writes in the same article. "But I can say that the musical languages and codes from the 'jazz' traditions that speak through me make it possible for me to be myself – just as my parents had to figure out how to be themselves in an alien environment. In a way it makes sense that these musical modes of discourse were initiated by African Americans, because for as long as they have been in the 'New World,' Africans have needed to form their own private means of expression based on their explicit and implicit African sensibilities, as an act of resistance to the attempted categorical erasure of their cultural knowledge base."

While attending Cal and living in the Bay Area, Iyer hooked up with the mostly Chinese and Japanese Americans in the Asian American jazz scene, and with Asian Improv Records, in particular. As the first South Asian to record for AIR, he often dealt explicitly with questions of identity. Even before he recorded Memoraphilia in 1995, Iyer had "come under the spell" of saxophonist Steve Coleman, a founder and leading light of the M-Base movement, which included such African American jazz musicians as Greg Osby, Cassandra Wilson, Graham Haynes, and Marvin "Smitty" Smith. He played in Coleman's Mystic Rhythm Society and Council of Balance bands and appeared on the albums Myths, Modes and Means and Genesis and the Opening of the Way.

Although Iyer said he and Coleman experienced "a parting of the ways" a year or so ago, the pianist still values "the example Steve set in terms of rigor – maintaining a sort of emotional side to the music while still being rigorous intellectually, and also connecting to one's heritage. I learned this as much from him as from the whole Asian Improv scene – about how to address the music of your ancestry and make it a personal journey." Having moved to New York in 1998, Iyer felt the need to focus more on his own music. "When you're in someone else's band, you kind of grow dependent on it, not only as your source of income but as one of your main musical outlets, and that can unconsciously keep you from developing," he said. "It's good for me to be seen more as a leader." Village Voice jazz critic Gary Giddins, for one, has noticed. In a review from April 17, 2001, Giddins praised the quartet as "a unit that not only avoids head-and-solos routines, but integrates the ensemble almost to the point of doing away with soloist-and-accompaniment." To Iyer he awarded the ultimate jazz compliment: "His sound is his own, and you would recognize it in a blindfold test."

But even while striking out on his own, leading his quartet, playing in a trio with bassist Elliott Kavee and saxophonist Aaron Stewart, and performing duets with saxophonist Mahanthappa, Iyer has continued to ally himself with innovative geniuses who prowl beyond the margins of mainstream jazz, accepting mentorship where it suits him. Over the past year he has performed and toured with radical poet Amiri Baraka, hung out and compared notes with saxophonist-composer Henry Threadgill, and played in saxophonist Roscoe Mitchell's quintet and his nine-piece Note Factory. "He also has this high rigorous command, like Coleman," Iyer said of Mitchell, the 61-year-old cofounder of the legendary Art Ensemble of Chicago. "But it's within a completely different aesthetic. He was giving me specific instructions about things he wanted, and especially what he didn't want, in a context that looks to an outsider like wild, completely free improvisation. They were mild but important constraints that forced me to find other ways of improvising. I found things in the piano that I'd never found before, in terms of things I could do. I found myself playing things I'd never dreamed possible, at least for me."

Iyer continues to find ways to put into practice certain yoga techniques he learned during a visit to India (involving working through resistance to achieve growth), as well as his Ph.D. research into the role of the body in improvisation. Inspired by the "massive force" audible behind the music Thelonious Monk made at the piano, for instance, Iyer tries "to figure out how to create those sorts of gales of sound and also have that kind of clarity, very focused and articulate. You can hear the imprint of Monk's hands on his melodies, so I've thought a lot about how to really exploit the relationship of my body to the piano in the same the way that Monk exploited the relationship of his body to the piano. But I don't have Monk's body, I have my own body, and it has its own enablings and experience. It's a sort of research, but even that process of searching for that becomes a musical act."

The Vijay Iyer Quartet
performs Sat/2, 8 and 10:30 p.m., ODC Theater, 3153 17th St., S.F. $15-$20. (415) 863-9834, www.odctheater.org.