Vijay Iyer: inspiration and fate in music

05. January 2016
Tinatin Baghashvili

The American pianist and composer Vijay Iyer travelled to Estonia for Christmas Jazz festival with his well-known trio. The concert was held on 5th of December at Kumu Auditorium.


It was Vijay Iyer’s first time to visit Estonia and he finds it fascinating: ‘I like this place because it is a combination of very old and very new, its sense of history of the place and Estonia’s connection to the rest of the world. I have read some of Estonian technology development as well. Tallinn has a good balance of modernity and history.’ Tallinn with its large presence reminds the musician Boston or Seattle.


The experience of visiting Tallinn was very positive for him in terms of seeing different culture, meeting people and sharing his music to Estonian audience. ‘The audience was very generous and kind. I make choices during playing as we go, I want to make sure that even though we have intense moments we have something restful and still. It’s a combination of isolation and action.’


Undoubtedly wonderful musicians Stephan Crump on bass and Tyshawn Sorey on drums accompanied the pianist in his trio. They had been touring in Europe and after Rotterdam the band arrived in Estonia. Even though the band has been working together already 15 years, and the repertoire is fixed, every performance is different. ‘These things just happen naturally. You meet musicians through other musicians. Then they come into your life and they either stay or not. I met Stephan in 1999 in New York.’ Pianist needed a bass player at that time in his band and he received suggestion from his friend about Stephan. ‘Then I called Stephan and suggested if he wanted to come and try; He did not know me either, however he was open and very serious about the music. He balances things up in a nice way.’ Iyer met his drummer friend through mutual friends too. “He just instantly knew how to make music better and valuable. Before drums he also played the piano. One time he came to my place and when he had to go there was a storm. The sky literally turned black and he had to stay longer at my place. It was sort of a sign. He has been dear friend and brilliant band partner and we have been working since then.’

Vijay Iyer says that his band’s coherence is a fate. The musician considers himself lucky because the band has been already working together for so long. ‘It is unbelievable that everyone is the right person who believes in music.’


The famous pianist‘s first instrument was not a piano. In an age of three he started playing the violin, however his sister was taking piano classes at that time. ‘I was in the role of a little brother role who used to go to the piano and make noises out of it. There was something that felt good to make sound.’ In high school the young musician joined his friends in a rock band as a keyboard player. They played a lot of rock and pop. ‘Then my high school started a jazz ensemble and they accepted me to the ensemble.’ The director put Vijay Iyer in touch with the pianist Andy Calabrese, who gave lessons to the future piano virtuoso. This was a serious step in his understanding of jazz music. ‘Being in a jazz ensemble gave me chance to play this music seriously.’


American pianist was keen on playing piano. Becoming a musician was still a big challenge, since it was very difficult to make living from the music. Therefore, he decided to study sciences in terms of future perspectives of career. Nonetheless, musical importance never left his mind. ‘I quit studies after 6 years, because I had a chance to do music that was a big opportunity that shifted my life to the different direction.’ Since then Iyer could live his life with and for the music. Sister’s piano, small and cheap but real one inspired the little brother to flow into arts of sound. Sister herself became a public health worker.


Naming the compositions is another challenge for the musicians. More than 200 hundred pieces that are archived in pianists’ data have different impulses and background. ‘The title kind of tells the perception of the piece in a certain way. I sometimes just make something very essential and elemental, one word. “Libra” – is about balance, and I think of my friends who are Libras. One of my friends who was a poet, passed away, and I wrote to him. He was a hero, a friend and a mentor for many years. When I was composing it, I felt he was in the music. Another thing, when we improvise, the time can pass from one minute to the next, especially with Stephan and Tyshawn. We know the basics but as we play, anything can happen.’


Beside music Vijay Iyer is a professor at Harvard University. ‘When I was playing at the concert I thought, when I am at Harvard, I almost forget that I am also this person.’


The following year seems very busy for the musician. He continues composing, creating and experiencing the music.


5th of December 2015 8 pm at Kumu auditorium
Vijay Iyer – piano
Stephan Crump – bass
Tyshawn Sorey – percussion