If you visit the website of pianist-composer Vijay Iyer, you will be greeted with a blurred portrait of a man, vaguely recognizable as Iyer, dashing through an urban landscape. It's a fitting visual metaphor for the frenetic musical journey Iyer has taken over the past two decades.
"Transformation is the way of this music," says Iyer, whose perpetual motion has paid off. Over the past two years, he's won a MacArthur "genius" fellowship and a Doris Duke Performing Artist Award. In 2012, he garnered five top awards in DownBeat's International Critics Poll, including Jazz Artist of the Year and top pianist.
Iyer is often portrayed as one of the most cerebral pianists in jazz, but he's also one of the funkiest and most swinging. He's come a long way since his early years in Fairport, where he took his first music lessons on violin.
"It's built up little by little," Iyer says. "It's a privilege to have the opportunities I've had. A lot of it is luck, a lot of it is working hard all the time, and a lot of it is the generosity of elders, mentors, and my collaborators who have supported these projects of mine."
When Iyer references projects, he's not just talking about a trio and a quartet. He's got eight projects ranging from straight-ahead jazz to explorations of the Asian Indian music of his heritage.
"For me it's really all come from collaborative relationships, and they've all been very genuine," Iyer says. "It's building things with people and the unpredictable nature of that process.
"If you look at my last four albums," he says, "they're all pretty different, but that's a pattern itself. So it's not that there's a center and tangents, it's more like that transformative process is the identity itself. Look at the history of the music — Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock, or John Coltrane — they all had that ethos of change. That was part of who they were. In Herbie's case, it still is."
Iyer has spent a lot of time with Hancock lately at Harvard University, where Iyer teaches a course and Hancock has been a sort of artist-in-residence, delivering the school's "Norton Lectures."
After attending Yale University, Iyer earned a Ph.D. in the cognitive science of music from the University of California at Berkeley. As a result, he's been pigeonholed. "Everything I do gets called intellectual and cerebral," says Iyer. "It really has nothing to do with what the music sounds like. It's people responding to all of these other tags."
This has been especially true in reviews of his latest album, "Mutations," featuring Iyer and a string quartet. As the title suggests, the music morphs from track to track. Along the way are lyrical passages, sections reminiscent of serial music and some recalling Beethoven's late string quartets.
But one of his best-known previous album cuts is his take on the Michael Jackson hit "Human Nature." It's all part of Iyer's wide-angle view of music that goes beyond genres.
"On all my albums there's a range of stuff," Iyer says. "People will say that hip-hop is not music or that drumming is not music. I find that this thing we call music is actually broader than we think, that we're conditioned by culture to create a boundary between something called music and something that's not music, but that boundary is not very clear."
When it comes to a musical hero, Iyer turns to Thelonious Monk, who he discusses in the present tense.
"He's a real communicator in performance," Iyer says. "He really reaches you. No matter who you are or where you are in the room, what he's doing gets inside of you in a really powerful way. That's what first drew me to him as a teenager.
"But then I got more into the language of his music, the building blocks he was working with, the spontaneity, the rigor compositionally, and the playfulness. There was a unity there; the language of his compositions is also the language of his improvisation. Then you hear that he had a real exploratory way with sound and harmony and sonorities: very specific, very unusual, and still underexplored voicings."
Widely viewed as one of the most progressive voices in jazz, Iyer is not sure where the music is going, but, like the figure on his website, he knows it can't stand still.
"For decades now," he says, jazz "has been dominated by people who played with Miles Davis or people whose name is Marsalis. Now I think we're at some sort of turning point — a soft turning point, because many of those people are still around. But there is a sense that people of my generation and younger have to create something new."
The Vijay Iyer Trio performs Monday, June 23, 6 and 10 p.m. in Kilbourn Hall at Eastman School of Music, 26 Gibbs Street. Iyer performs solo Tuesday, June 24, at 5:45 and 7:45 p.m. in Hatch Recital Hall at Eastman School of Music, 433 E. Main Street. Tickets are $25 for the Kilbourn Hall performances, and $20 for the Hatch Recital Hall performances. Or you can use your Club Pass at all performances. Vijay-iyer.com.
City Newspaper's guide to Rochester's biggest music festival. The 2016 Xerox Rochester International Jazz Festival runs Friday, June 24, through Saturday, July 2. For more reviews, blogs, photos, and the latest news, check our website every day of the festival.
The 2016 Xerox Rochester International Jazz Festival runs Friday, June 24, through Saturday, July 2, and City Newspaper will be out every night of the festival, covering multiple shows.