Pianist/Composer Vijay Iyer

Hailed as “one of the most interesting and vital young pianists in jazz today,” the Grammy-nominated composer-pianist discusses his new album, Break Stuff.

Born in Albany, New York, Vijay Iyer has had a brilliant career spanning the sciences, the humanities, and the arts. He earned a BA, Mathematics & Physics, Yale University, and received his Ph.D. in Cognitive Science of Music from the University of California, Berkeley. Iyer is a Grammy-nominated pianist-composer Vijay Iyer, who has been described as "one of the world’s most inventive new-generation jazz pianists” by The Guardian. Iyer was named a 2013 MacArthur Genius and 2014 Pianist of the Year by DownBeat Magazine. His trio’s new album, Break Stuff, features 9 original compositions and 3 covers by Thelonius Monk, John Coltrane, and Billy Strayhorn.


Tavis: Vijay Iyer has been described as one of the world’s most inventive new-generation jazz pianists. The Grammy nominee was named a 2013 Macarthur Genius and, just last year, he received a permanent appointment as the Franklin D. and Florence Rosenblatt Professor of the Arts in Harvard’s Music Department.

His trio is out now with a new album called “Break Stuff” available everywhere. Before we start our conversation, first a look at a clip of Vijay Iyer and the trio performing “Break Stuff”.


Tavis: Vijay, good to have you on the program.

Vijay Iyer: My pleasure. Thank you.

Tavis: And congrats on all the success. Why the title “Break Stuff”? What does that mean?

Iyer: It’s about stuff that happens in the breaks [laugh]. It’s not about breaking stuff, although that’s okay too.

Tavis: Yeah. Does good stuff happen in the breaks?

Iyer: Seems that way to me. You know, this music is heavily improvised, so it’s about creating situations for us to improvise in. So those are the breaks.

Tavis: Why improvisation for you? And that’s a strange question because, in many respects, that’s what jazz is. It’s doing what you do when you do it. But why have you become known as this artist above all else who is so improvisational?

Iyer: Because I put in the center of the music that I do. I make it the heart of things, you know. When I’m a composer, when I’m composing, when I compose for this group, for example, what that really means is I just set up situations for us to improvise. So I don’t write too heavy, you know. I write in a way that just says sets things off, sets things in motion and gives us details to work with or some ground rules.

It’s kind of like playing basketball or something, you know, to set up some ground rules, some rules of engagement, you could say [laugh], and we find our way through it, and each time is different.

Tavis: On the basketball court, to stay with your metaphor, it doesn’t always work.

Iyer: True indeed [laugh].

Tavis: Ask the Houston Rockets. Ouch! It doesn’t always work and yet it seems to me that improvising in music is like a high-wire act. You like being up there?

Iyer: Well, I find that that’s where you become most yourself. When you put yourself in a certain–sort of put yourself at risk, I mean, it’s not death-defying in the same way. I mean, no one’s going to die, right?

But it’s sort of about being vulnerable and being willing to be in the moment and make a choice that you might not have made before and you might not know where it’s leading, but then you have to respond to what it is. Not what you wanted it to be, but what actually happened.

Tavis: Let me just back up. Math and physics at Yale, Ph.D. from Berkeley, and you end up being a jazz artist. Was that the way it was supposed to work? Or how does all of that help you with “Break Stuff” and beyond?

Iyer: There was a little improvising in there [laugh]. You know, I was in college more than 20 years ago, so I stopped being a physicist back in ’94. But what that set me up to do was to think with a certain amount of rigor, I guess, or a certain amount of discipline.

But people don’t often realize about the science is that that’s a creative discipline too actually. You know, you have to be able to synthesize information from a lot of different sources. You have to be able to think on your feet.

So it’s actually not that different as a sensibility from being an artist. And I try to carry that with me, I guess, if anything. But also what I did after I left physics was I studied the science of music and that’s something that I think everybody should study and certainly every musician should study that.

Because it’s learning specifically how we hear and how we perceive, how we relate to what’s happening musically and how we create. You know, I was really interested in how the body works and how music is made of bodily action. And that to me is kind of the heart of it for me and that’s why improvisation is so key.

Tavis: Let me step out on a limb here. If more artists had studied or would study into the future the science of music, as you are suggesting, how might it change what we hear as fans?

Iyer: Well, I think more musicians would consider the listener, consider what it feels like to hear what they’re hearing. And it also means thinking about music as a social act so that it’s not just for you as the doer, but it’s for others, you know. It means that it’s interdependent, that we’re creating for each other and with each other.

Tavis: Speaking of music as a social act, I wrote this down because this quote was so empowering and provocative for me all at the same time. I want to put it up on the screen in second, but let me just read this quote from you.

“If someone is going to follow me because they like jazz, then they better be ready to deal with some social justice issues. You can’t just have black music without black people. What it boils down to is, if you don’t care about black people, the urgent concerns of the moment facing those communities, it doesn’t make sense to be fetishizing black music.” I couldn’t agree more, but that’s a strong statement.

Iyer: Well, it just happens to be true, that’s all [laugh]. You know, I find that often people are interested in jazz without really studying the history or thinking about where it came from, why anybody sought to make this area of music, this kind of music, in the first place.

So to me, it’s important to really scrutinize that, look at it really hard, and try to understand your own relationship to that history especially if you want to be in it, you know.

If you want to put yourself in the stream of this amazing tradition of music in America, then you have to understand why it exists in the first place and you have to situate yourself somehow in a way that makes sense of it, and you have to be honest with yourself. So that’s sort of how I try to tell my students that too, that it’s not just a game. It’s not just about pretty sounds. It’s actually a ballet.

Tavis: I want to shut up now and make room. I could talk to you for hours because you’re fascinating to talk to. But I want to make room for you to do what you do and the audience can hear how well you do it. You got some original stuff on here, you’ve got some–I would never use the word covers with you, but interpretations. Is that a better word?

Iyer: Yeah, that’s how it is.

Tavis: Some interpretations of some greats, and we’re going to hear one of those right  about now. Up next, Vijay will perform the song, “Blood Count” from his new album, “Break Stuff”. I get a chance to say thank you for watching right now and, as always, keep the faith. Here comes Vijay, so enjoy.


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Last modified: May 12, 2015 at 1:56 pm