NEW YORK (AP) — Pianist Vijay Iyer has an unlikely backstory for a musician who’s been voted jazz artist of the year in Downbeat magazine’s critics’ poll, received a MacArthur Foundation genius grant, and is a professor in Harvard’s music department.
Largely self-taught on piano, he majored in physics and mathematics at Yale. At age 23, while pursuing his doctorate in physics at the University of California at Berkeley, he took the risky decision to become a professional musician to his parents’ bewilderment. He later received an interdisciplinary Ph.D. from Berkeley focusing on music and embodied cognition, or how the human body perceives music.
“I was a bit of a later bloomer and had a lot of catching up to do,” said the 44-year-old.
Iyer’s untraditional path has led him to another out-of-the-ordinary project: A collaborative suite, “A Cosmic Rhythm With Each Stroke,” with trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith, based on the art of late Indian visual artist Nasreen Mohamedi, recently released by ECM Records.
“It was a beautiful thing that we could make a duo project in relation to the work of this incredible artist from India who’s lesser known than she should be in the West,” said Iyer, interviewed in a gallery displaying Mohamedi’s geometric line-based drawings. “Her work is very spare, elegant and mysterious. It has a lot of order and geometry and patterns, and it also has a lot of space.”
After Iyer became the 2015-16 artist-in-residence at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, curators introduced him to the work of Mohamedi ahead of an exhibition opening The Met Breuer, a center for the museum’s modern art program in the former home of the Whitney Museum of American Art.
The museum commissioned Iyer to compose the suite with Smith, and the duo recorded the album in October. The titles of the suite and its seven movements are taken from phrases in Mohamedi’s diaries.
Iyer was particularly struck by the precise, delicate drawings Mohamedi made in her later years as she struggled with a debilitating neurological disease that made it difficult to hold her pen.
“There’s this field of energy behind each stroke — the cosmic rhythms,” he said.
Limor Tomer, the Met’s general manager of concerts and lectures, said she chose Iyer as the resident artist not only for his talents as a composer and pianist, but also for his “curiosity” about collaborating with other artists.
Iyer was inspired and encouraged by musicians like Anthony Braxton and Smith, who were involved in the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, formed in the mid-’60s in Chicago by musicians who mixed avant-garde jazz, contemporary and world music.
Iyer’s collaboration with Smith underscored Iyer’s belief that “music can help you transcend differences.” Their backgrounds are worlds apart: he is the son of Indian immigrants who grew up in upstate New York, and the 74-year-old trumpeter has roots in the Mississippi Delta.
“Vijay is a sincere, creative artist, a very generous human being who is well-attuned to human feelings and emotions,” said Smith, a 2013 Pulitzer Prize finalist for his civil rights opus “Ten Freedom Summers.”
Iyer played in Smith’s Golden Quartet from 2005-2010 — an experience he says “stretched me in a way that I hadn’t really been before.” They first performed as a duo in January 2015.
For his recent three-week performance residency at the Met Breuer, Iyer premiered “Cosmic Rhythm” with Smith, but also played with or presented 40 ensembles and soloists. Some of those performances included his trio with bassist Stephan Crump and drummer Marcus Gilmore, who have been together since 2004.
Iyer says the project brought together “artists who cut across disciplines, ethnic, racial and class backgrounds, and generations.”
“When you consider us all as connecting to each other in some kind of larger fabric, then what you think of as musical genres don’t really make any sense. … Music doesn’t really want to be separated.”