My calm Midwestern life has been punctuated by three precious trips to New York, a city of dashes and exclamations. Also a city of jazz, though I never seem to be there with anyone willing to go listen. This time, I resolved to go alone. I had one night free. And I lucked into Vijay Iyer’s trio.
Early for the second set, I read up. The New York Times called Iyer a “social conscience, multimedia collaborator, system builder, rhapsodist, historical thinker and multicultural gateway.” DownBeat named him Jazz Artist of the Year four times. He won a MacArthur fellowship. He was composer-in-residence at London’s Wigmore Hall and artist-in-residence at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Currently Franklin D. and Florence Rosenblatt Professor of the Arts in the music department at Harvard University, he holds a joint appointment in African and African-American studies that he says opens his music “to a larger set of questions.”
Auspicious. To prepare, I order a cocktail made with mezcal—smoky, grassy, a little bitter, sparked with lime and ginger. A difficult drink, nothing I would usually choose. But I want to wake up my senses, make the music stick in my memory. And booze, like late nights, goes with jazz. Sunshine and lemonade do not. The rational mind and all its buzzy preoccupations and preconceptions must be silenced. Jazz must be felt.
Iyer’s introduction is low-key, almost diffident, and he starts softly, his fingertips barely brushing the piano keys. There is a thoughtfulness in his demeanor, a gentleness. The guy next to me, a jazz lover for decades, has come from Connecticut to hear him, will follow him anywhere, swears “he’s a genius. He started at three on the violin and taught himself piano. I love the soft parts because it’s the only time you really hear him.”
The rest of the time, Iyer is content to provide the melodic backbone, the clarity you hold onto while the bassist and drummer take brilliant, showy detours. Acknowledged as “America’s only true art form,” jazz has the democracy we are fast losing everywhere else. Every musician does their own thing—no hierarchy—and what happens stays loose. Yet they listen to one another more intently than any instrumentalist in a symphony orchestra. They have to, because even as they solo in long, glorious riffs, they are working together, saying something with the music, playing with the score, elaborating, and returning.
I find the result exciting—why are so many of my friends indifferent? Is jazz like cilantro, delightful only to people with certain genetic predispositions and soapy to the rest? People here love it, and you can feel the difference. Bodies moving, subtly, helplessly, heads giving a slight but constant bob. I catch myself smiling as I listen, one of those smiles you did not bid and cannot erase.
Dizzy’s Club, the home of Jazz at Lincoln Center, is an intimate venue, and tonight, it feels like a community. Only one woman seems unmoved. Oh, no, honey, I want to say. You can’t listen to jazz with your arms folded. You cannot defend at all.
Though I now expect to focus on Iyer, the next happy surprise is the drummer, Tyshawn Sorey, whose playing supplies the pyrotechnics. Also a composer and a past MacArthur fellow, he is, per The New Yorker, “an extraordinary talent who can see across the entire musical landscape.” Hypnotized, I watch him wield the mallets, slip in the sticks, rub the drum like he is buffing it with fine-grit sandpaper. Then the cornet player comes in—Graham Haynes, a friend of Iyer’s, joining them onstage tonight and tomorrow—and now the trio is a quartet. The energy builds, the heat of it loosening the music. What was tender is now intense, strong without turning frenetic.
Looking around, I see an old guy wearing a knit skullcap and striped shirt; he looks like a Beat poet. Most of the men are wearing jackets, a few even wore a tie, and the women are in cocktail dresses, just as they would have been decades ago. Sign of respect. Jazz musicians stick to soft clothes, though: loose, untucked shirts that let them move. The darkened room glows, low light gleaming off the polished brass and lacquered wood, the contrast of ivory and gloss black muted, the stretch of drum skins pale.
All too soon, the set is over. Something inside me has settled. Iyer’s final word is to invite people back for the next night. “Every set has been completely different,” he tells them. “Shockingly so, in fact.” I grin; what better guarantee that they were all in, creating, not playing on auto-pilot? Jazz is meant to be fluid, not brittle like candy pop. More than other genres, it begs to be heard live, because you know you will never hear those pieces quite the same way again.
The guy next to me is clapping as hard as I am. He is “from Italia,” where there is great jazz, he tells me afterward. I ask what he thought of tonight. He smiles. “Perfect.”
A young woman joins our conversation; she runs a website for experimental music in New York. Iyer, yeah, but she was here to hear Sorey. I babble about his drumming, and she adds that he also plays trombone—and once took his instrument apart during a set and ended playing only the mouthpiece. He is so good, you forgive him the gimmick and let yourself be dazzled.
I walk back slowly, the notes still echoing. Too grateful to sleep, I read. One of Sorey’s recordings, I am tickled to learn, came from a piece he performed at Washington University in 2019. How did I miss it? As for Iyer, the role of social conscience comes through again and again. After the pandemic, he, Sorey, and bassist Linda May Han Oh recorded Uneasy, an album he intended to be “a reminder of what’s possible: how we can be together, how we can move together, how we can build something together.” One of the tracks is “Children of Flint”; another is “Combat Breathing,” in solidarity with Black Lives Matter.
“He carries himself with the wariness of an outsider,” notes a reviewer. Is this introversion, humility, activism, or just the fact of growing up the son of Tamil immigrants? Clearly, he has made it inside—Minnesota Public Radio called him “an American treasure.” But his bachelor’s was in math and physics at Yale—was that the life his parents wanted for him? He earned a master’s in physics, but he never let the music go.
Pitchfork once asked Iyer what music shaped him. His list started at age five with Star Wars, which he later realized had a “swashbuckling energy” and “something kind of fascist about it: the patriotic fervor, the marches.” Then came The Police, Prince, Public Enemy, and when he met his wife, Nina Simone. When his daughter was born, Abida Parveen. Sorey’s “Flowers for Prashant” was a collaboration to honor a friend whose death hit Iyer hard. And after his father’s death, Iyer clung to Igor Levit’s performance of Shostakovich’s “Fugue No. 16 in B-Flat Minor, Op. 87,” which felt to him like “leaves falling in slow motion.” Now past fifty, he is less interested in biographical intersections than in “life moments that actually transform you, aesthetically. Almost like your body needs something else to hold you.”
Sometimes it arrives by accident.
Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.