Vijay Iyer and the Brentano Quartet in a live performance of sections from Mutations at Greene Space

Over the past two decades, Vijay Iyer has recorded some 18 albums of bold, genre-defying and original music that navigates the fine line between composition and improvisation, between jazz and New Music.  Although his restless musical imagination roams easily through both Carter and Monk territory, unearthing insights that evolve and morph over time, the gestures have largely been identifiable as jazz.   His new and first ECM recording—Mutations—unveils more of the composer side of the 42-year-old New Yorker’s prolific bag.  The title composition–for string quartet, piano and electronics—was written nearly 10 years ago but is recorded here for the first time, with considerable care, by Iyer and top chamber players Miranda Cuckson, Michi Wiancko, Kyle Armbrust and Kivie Cahn-Lipman,  under the magic ear of Manford Eicher.

Is Mutations jazz or is it contemporary classical or some sort of Third Stream, as envisioned by Gunther Schuller?  Does it matter?

“I find myself at the intersection of several music communities where people have different understandings and assumptions about what music is,” he says.  “When you talk about genres you’re really talking about different communities of people each of which has people who have a shared understanding of music.  But, those assumptions shift as we are exposed to different approaches and sounds so we are constantly redefining what music is. ”

In other words, he isn’t much interested in labels or categories.

“As you can imagine, from the perspective of an artist who makes music and has lived pretty intimately in both the jazz and classical worlds it is not useful think about labels or categories.  It’s more useful to think about what can I do with these particular people.  Because when you talk about genres you’re really talking about communities and people who have a shared understanding about what is music.  When you’re exposed to something new, that can expand or alter your perceptions.”

Lately, Iyer has become the Pharrell Williams of the New Music community—a musician who has worked over 20 years to become an overnight success.   Although Iyer’s music is unlikely to dominate the planet in the same resistance-is-futile way that Williams has, he has plenty to be “happy” about, too.  In the last two years, he’s won a MacArthur Genius Award, gotten a tenured teaching position at Harvard, landed a big commission and retrospective at BAM this coming December and released an extraordinary new album on ECM.

“I’m a kind of late bloomer in terms of becoming a professional musician,” Iyer told me after a performance of Mutations  at The Greene Space a couple of weeks ago. I had intended to get into physics and got an undergraduate degree in math and physics at Yale.  After that I went to Berkeley to work on a Ph.D.  The music was always there and I never stopped playing.  I just wasn’t sure I could make a living at it.  I wound up getting an interdisciplinary Ph.D. in Technology and the Arts, focusing on music cognition.  Fortunately, I had some success in performing and it encouraged me to keep going.”

What makes that success even more remarkable is that despite having studied the violin for 15 years, beginning at age three, he is virtually self-taught as a pianist.

“I began to gravitate toward the piano when I was six although I didn’t approach it in a formal way.  I was drawn more by the physical connection.  I didn’t find the jazz interest until high school and particularly after discovering Thelonious Monk.  He’s my all-time favorite composer and musician.  I’ve learned, and continue to learn, so much from him–about rhythm, and tempo and immersion into the music.”

Iyer was born in Albany in 1971 and raised in nearby Fairport. He played in the Rochester Philharmonic Youth Orchestra and took improvisation and music theory courses at Eastman School of Music while in high school. His parents were science technicians who had immigrated from Tamil Nadu  but he grew up in a prosperous “conventional” American environment.  Although he is interested in Indian music and culture and has incorporated some elements into his music, his jazz “roots” and influences are distinctly African-America.

Listen to the sublime “Spellbound and Sacrosanct, Cowrie Shells and the Shimmering Sea” and the other jazzish pieces on the Mutations CD and you’ll find yourself immersed in the sonic world of Monk and Randy Weston, as channeled through a devoted and gifted student/master.  The center piece–Mutations 1-10–is something else entirely.

Commissioned by Ethel in 2005, the 10-part composition for piano, electronics and string quartet is a gnarly kaleidoscope of timbres and asymmetrical rhythms, anchored by occasional droplets of melody from Iyer on piano and electronics, and enlivened by steady—if a little tentative—bursts of improvisation by members of the wonderful recording quartet.  In the program notes, Iyer writes:   “With Mutations, and with all of my music, I am interested in probing this loose constellation of concepts: change, stasis, repetition, evolution, attraction, repulsion, composition, improvisation, noise, technology, race, ethnicity, hybridity.”  I suppose he had to write something.

Written in the period when the 9/11 tragedy still gripped New York and not long after Iyer and his wife, Christina Leslie, a computational biologist at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, and their new daughter settled in New York.  Mutations reflects some of the edgy feelings of alienation, fear and despair of that period, leavened by moments of hope.

In the original program notes, Iyer writes:   “With Mutations, and with all of my music, I am interested in probing this loose constellation of concepts: change, stasis, repetition, evolution, attraction, repulsion, composition, improvisation, noise, technology, race, ethnicity, hybridity.”  I suppose he had to write something.

Iyer’s classically-oriented pieces like Mutations  and Time, Place, Action, a new piano quintet he wrote for the Brentano which is not on the ECM CD but had its New York premiere recently at the 92Y,  present special challenges.  It is one thing for Iyer, a born improviser, to add unexpected piano or electronic rifts against the backdrop of a notated string quartet; it is quite another to ask musicians who are trained to play notes exactly as written to improvise.

“Having been an improviser and having studied and played the violin for many years, I have a kind of insider sense of what it feels like on both sides of the boundary,” he says.  “Classical musicians don’t take improvised solos like jazz musicians but they do make choices and decisions—they’re very good at interpreting, they’re interacting all the time;  they choose how tempos breathe, for example, and how to play in tune so they do make many moment-to-moment micro-decisions.  I was interested in what could classical musicians “choose” to do when presented with passages where they get to decide what to do.  For example, there are places where they are instructed to repeat this as many times as you like or choose how to play a rhythm

In the past, Iyer has produced, or co-produced, his own recordings.  For Mutations, he worked directly with ECM’s legendary founder and producer Manford Eicher, who is reputed to be something of a perfectionist.

“There are what I call ‘producer’s knob’ producers,” Iyer says.  “They turn the volume up or down and feel like they’ve done their part.  Manford is not that guy.  He was involved in every aspect of the production, even to the music itself.  It was great to work with someone who has the knowledge and experience to be involved to that level.”

Things seem to keep getting better and better for the soft and carefully-spoken Iyer, (whose diffidence is either very charming or very annoying.  I can’t decide.)  In January he became the first Franklin D. and Florence Rosenblatt Professor of the Arts in Harvard’s Department of Music.   Harvard’s catalog describes his course, “Creative Music: Critical Practice Studio,” as “an intensive, research-oriented workshop environment for advanced improviser-composers” meant to “engage with a range of contemporary musical perspectives and practices.” Part of his mission, he says, is to fill in the blanks for young musicians about what has happened in jazz over the past 50 years or so since the era of bebop.  (There is no hope for those of us old farts who believe jazz died with the appearance of “Bitches Brew.” Ok, I make an exception for Steve Lacy, who was a personal friend.)

Perhaps the thing that animates Iyer most when you talk to him is the progress his nine-year-old daughter—who began, like dad, at three—is making on the violin.

“She’s awesome,” he says.  Coming from someone as achievement-oriented as Vijay Iyer, that’s high praise indeed.