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The Vijay Iyer Trio combines math, diplomacy and dancing



The title track of Accelerando, the newest album by the Vijay Iyer Trio, is the most immediate, compelling piece of recorded jazz music in recent history. The piano, bass and drums instrumentation is familiar. The composition is alien, a fragmented loop of seasick rhythms, drastic lunges forward and uneasy back bends. Few beats land squarely in measurable time, but the New York City trio comprising pianist Iyer, bassist Stephan Crump and drummer Marcus Gilmore communicates frightening precision. At times it sounds like Philip Glass' Glassworks tumbling down a spiral staircase. At others, it sounds like an alternate-reality Black Sabbath in which Tony Iommi traded his Gibson SG for a Steinway grand. Clocking in under three minutes, "Accelerando" is urgent, disorienting and completely addictive.

Its timing is odd, but Vijay Iyer's purpose for the track is even stranger; the piece was made for dancing. More specifically, it was written to accompany a performance by New York's Armitage Gone! Dance. For Iyer, the premiere was a crowning achievement of his lifelong rhythmic explorations. "There were these bodies hurtling through the air, careening right past my head and landing on the beats," he says. "And not only are these beats irregular, they are irrational. You have to use square roots to measure these things. These were trained dancers, and they're used to counting, but they're also used to responding to sound. That's a primal thing we all have."

In the album's liner notes, Iyer states that Accelerando "is in the lineage of American creative music based on dance rhythms." This intention is not glaringly obvious on first listen, although his cover of Heatwave's "Star of a Story" is begging to be sampled on a Mos Def or Madlib track thanks, to an inhumanly lopsided beat from Gilmore — who, incidentally, is the grandson of legendary drummer Roy Haynes.

"To me, dance is not a concept, it's an action." Iyer says. "It's a physical response to music, so I tend to explore music on those terms. We have this bias in the West that it has to be 120 beats per minute and 4/4 time signature or nobody can dance to it. But most of these things people in the West call odd times are folk rhythms from other places that children and grandmothers can dance to."

Iyer culls much of his rhythmic ideology from his South Indian heritage. He refers to Western culture as one that "has mystified all music that cannot be divisible by two." This mental block has affected some perceptions of his music, which is sometimes tagged as "cerebral" due to its asymmetrical constructions. Iyer's reputation as a brainiac is only furthered by his undergraduate degrees in mathematics and physics from Yale and his Berklee PhD in technology and the arts.

Yet listening to Vijay Iyer's music is not a purely intellectual experience. The pianist carries the burden of the inherent relationship between music and math where others might force the weight upon the listener. "To build something with any degree of accuracy, you have to deal with quantity and proportion and balance and measurement," he says. "When I deal with rhythmic forms, I'm not so concerned with how to write it or how to count it. I'm just interested in what it sounds like from the outside for someone who's not doing it. When you go into a building, aside from making sure you don't bump your head, you're not concerned with how tall the doorway is. The quantities and precision and attention to detail, the whole purpose is to create a space for people to interact."

The title Accelerando is an extension of Iyer's wide view of the micro- and macroscopic aspects of music and the world at large. "The only way to perceive accelerating events is by stepping back from them and seeing the larger picture in which everything is globally moving at a slower pace," he says. "You can see the internal turmoil as part of some larger, slower dynamic. The analogy I use is the hurricane from space. You see these big, graceful arms of the storm moving, and it looks like slow motion, when you know that anybody on the ground is having a very different experience."

His metaphor is perfect; one can easily see the conflicting tempos and Thelonious Monk-inspired chord voicing throughout Accelerando as the inner turmoil, the floating sensation it inspires as the graceful arms. As such, the album is an interactive experience, a highly effective dance record, even with the involuntary motions it provokes dependent on which aspect — the storm or the calm — the listener directs focus.

In line with the album's theme, Iyer chose to arrange tracks by artists directly associated with dance music, from Duke Ellington to modern electronic-music producer Flying Lotus. While cross-genre reworkings are par for the course in jazz, Vijay's take on a tune such as Michael Jackson's "Human Nature" is more developed than, say, the Bad Plus' "Smells Like Teen Spirit" or Brad Mehldau's Radiohead covers. Much of his earlier attention was built around a transcendent arrangement of "Galang" by M.I.A. on the Vijay Iyer Trio's 2009 album Historicity, which focused as much on the original's energy as its melody.

"I suppose when I look at the list of songs I've covered, it's a list of songs that inspired me," Iyer says. "If they seem to be coming nominally from a different place, somehow something they did was important to me. These are portable ideas. I have no use for the notion of genre because that enforces notions of difference among communities. I think about communities themselves as the source of music. What are the priorities of these communities and what are the aesthetic standpoints from which they're starting, and what are the parameters of expression? What is music for, and why are they doing it? And that's where the idea of genre comes from, from the particularities of a community."

He continues, "I find that in the piano trio, when working with something outside of that format, part of what's interesting is the stretch that we have to undergo as an ensemble and as individual players to speak to that, to try to touch that other sound. It's sort of about looking at the boundary between what's you and what's not you and seeing if you can somehow reach through it."

With his open-minded approach, Vijay Iyer is one of few jazz artists to effectively interact outside of the usual audience. He has done so by collaborating with fellow South Indian musicians on the Carnatic-inspired album Tirtha, scoring a film for the acclaimed director Bill Morrison and playing with hip-hop artists such as Talib Kweli, David Banner, Dead Prez and Das Racist.

Working under his own name has also proven fruitful. Historicity was the most unanimously acclaimed jazz record of 2009; unless Bill Frisell is working on some Love Supreme-caliber masterpiece, Accelerando is likely to win this year's crown as well. The album has already landed Iyer's boyish face on the cover of the January/February issue of the Jazz Times.

He is thankful but cautious about his critical success. "I'm fortunate to have received positive press, but that does not necessarily reflect what non-industry people think," he says. "What it does do, for me, is that it enables me to play more. Reviews get seen by presenters who then think, 'This guy might be worth giving a gig to.' The only reason it matters to me is that it gets me on the ground connecting with audiences. I'm not doing that to become popular. I'm doing that because that's what music is for. I want the music to be in motion. I want it to do things for people. Otherwise, why bother?"

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