Interview with Vijay Iyer

The first post of this new blog dedicated to improvised and avant-garde music is the interview I realized with the one and only Mr. Vijay Iyer. He needs no introduction any more, I’d just say that he’s one of the most prominent musicians, pianists, composers and bandleaders of the generation born in the 1970s. The encounter took place in Paris on November 13th, 2012. The night before, I had attended his first set at the Duc des Lombards club where he performed with his trio mostly pieces from Historicity (2009) and Accelerando (2012), along with some new material. That performance can be reached here.

Here is the entire transcription of our one and a half hour dialogue. There is a four track blindfold test at the very end.


Hayri Gökşin Özkoray: One can say that you owe most of your distinctive sound and style to being self-taught on the piano. In retrospect, are you grateful to not having been formatted in a music school in order to learn the “correct way” to do things?

Vijay Iyer: [laughs] Well, I did have a lot of training. I had violin lessons which gave me a perspective on music and listening. I also was in a lot of ensembles throughout childhood. I played in orchestras and my high school’s jazz ensemble. That’s how I started getting into jazz piano, I also played in rock bands. I learned a lot through in the course of doing. You know, I learned on the job. I guess the thing is that it’s more like how people used to learn. I mean that’s like how the old masters learned, in context. That’s how Duke Ellington learned. The thing is that everyone had a style. That’s what was valued and more to the point, that was a necessity. If you wanted to function in the music, you had to find your own way to do it. It wasn’t even that I sought out to be unique. I just found my own solutions to my own questions, you know? And, so doing, I developed certain approaches. I wasn’t trying to be weird or anything like that. I was just trying to sound good as much as I could. Still trying to do that.

HGÖ: You barely sound like any other pianist. At times maybe like Cecil Taylor. Except for the first notes of your debut album [Memorophilia, Asian Improv Records, 1995] where there is a detectable McCoy Tyner hint, you don’t sound like anyone else.

VI: To me, it depends on whom you listen to. I was riding with the trio guys a couple of weeks ago in the US. We had played in Princeton, New Jersey and we were riding home. I plugged my iPod in the stereo (it was Stephan’s car), it was a Geri Allen album with Charlie Haden and Paul Motian [Etudes, Soul Note, 1988]. So we played the first few notes and they said “man, this sounds like you!”. So they found out that I kind of stole a bunch of stuff [laughs]. It wasn’t just her, it was that whole lineage like Andrew Hill, Elmo Hope, Horace Tapscott, Sun Ra and Randy Weston. You know, a lot of post-Monk people. As opposed to Bill Evans, Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, Keith Jarrett which I also was intrigued by, but I think I felt more kinship with that Monk lineage.

HGÖ: Having been classically trained on the violin, wasn’t it difficult for you to approach non-written music in the first place? Was that sort of a childhood curiosity for you to play by ear?

VI: Yes, I mean that’s what the piano always was for me. Before it was anything, it was just something I played by ear for fun with no guidance and nobody telling me what to do or what not to do. You know, the main thing is that we have to be able to play by ear. If you’re going to improvise and you can’t play by ear, then what are you playing? Then you’re playing things you have learned already and not actually responding to what’s happening or even responding to yourself. You’re just kind of plugging in patterns, which is not improvising.

HGÖ: Or not hearing things in your head in order to communicate them to the rest of the world.

VI: But you know, that’s something people often say that you have to hear it first and then play it. But I don’t know, when you’re talking, as you form the words, are you thinking “next, I am going to say the word « the »”? You know, it’s not quite accurate. When you’re speaking, which is also improvisation, you’re thinking at a higher level about what is about to happen, what just happened, what we are talking about. Not thinking about word-word-word or syllables or phoneme-phoneme-phoneme. If you’re thinking like that, you’d be just paralyzed. You can’t actually function that way. So I guess musically one has to think more in ideas and not in the sense of “okay, in the next measure, I’m going to play [this]”. You know, you can’t play and then hear in advance of what you’re playing. You have to have a skillful simultaneity of thought and action. Unity of thought of action, that’s what it really is. The whole myth of hearing it before you play it is a bit of a misnomer.

HGÖ: Well, in that case, what about the phenomenon of vocalized improvisations, from Bud Powell to Stephan Crump (just last night)?

VI: I mean it doesn’t precede itself. It’s a simultaneity. And it’s just that there is a certain skillful navigation of melody, of melodic possibility.

HGÖ: And imagination...

VI: “Skillful navigation of melodic possibility”. How’s that? It’s a good phrase.

HGÖ: Yes, that’s a good phrase indeed.
Well, in your compositional approach, I’d like to know whether there is something specific in the writing that relates to the musicians who are supposed to play that written piece. In the trio context, do you think of what Marcus [Gilmore] and Stephan [Crump] are able to do on that particular piece while you’re composing it?

VI: I don’t find many things that they are not able to do. I mean, they are able to do a lot of things. I think at this point for me the best approach is to write something that is transparent. Something that’s elemental enough that they can expand on. It still has a lot of detail in the way things interlock, counterpoint. I write parts out for everybody.

HGÖ: So they don’t figure out everything by themselves.

VI: What I write out is a skeleton. It’s notated, but as it is with everybody, it’s a point of reference. And those points of reference are omnipresent, so it isn’t like “play this and then abandon it”. It’s actually “work with this, transform and develop it”. There’s a lot of detail in what I give them and they’re used to it by now. And I’m used to them working with what I give them. I always know that they’re going to make it sound better. That’s a blessing.

HGÖ: Especially during the trio’s live performances, one has the impression that Marcus structures the piece himself in a parallel way.

VI: [laughs] Like what? How do you mean that?

HGÖ: By his mere comping he contributes his own structure and brings his imagination rhythmically and even harmonically. I don’t see him as a sole percussionist, he brings something more to the drums.

VI: To the sound, yeah. I mean there is a continuum between timbre (or tone) and harmony. And he hears all that. It’s certainly true, there is a part I give him which inevitably gets handled and referred to at some level, but he’s also bringing a lot more to it than that. I expect nothing less from him at this point. You know, he’s really quite a master.

HGÖ: At a really young age by the way.

VI: Yes, you can hear it on the first album we did together, Reimagining [Savoy Jazz, 2005]. He was eighteen at the time. From the first notes, when he comes in, you know it already. That’s present [laughs]. He’s effortless and very rigorous in detail. And just very creative in sound, ideas and space. Especially on the first track on that album, “Revolutions”, he does these kind of anti-fills. It’s that where there would be a fill, he just sort of leaves a space. Actually, it’s so slick, it catches you.

HGÖ: In order to progress during the piece, should you keep listening to him or rather follow your interior beat?

VI: There is a lot of both. I’m always interacting with him. It may seem parallel, but there’s always an axis of unity. To me, that’s the most important. Anybody in any band, you have to find your link to the drummer. Because that will create a resonance and strength, otherwise you’re just orbiting each other. That just doesn’t have the same power. I don’t know, some people like that more. If you listen to Bill Evans Trio, that’s a bit more like orbital [laughs]. It’s sort of a linear counterpoint. Because Marcus is very polyphonic and I tend to be pretty polyphonic. Then, there are a lot of points of connection and a lot of different levels.

HGÖ: You may go into many directions at the same time.

VI: Yes.

HGÖ: What you just said about the connection to the drummer reminded me of something Charlie Haden shouted at Ethan Iverson: You were listening to Paul Motian? Never listen to Paul Motian!”.

VI: [laughs] He said that on a gig?

HGÖ: Yes. I think that’s what he reported on his blog [Ethan Iverson rectified that this happened backstage, not on the bandstand as my statement may suggest].

VI: That’s weird.

HGÖ: He felt lost while listening simultaneously to Haden and Motian. He lost track of the solo that he was comping if I remember correctly.

VI: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Peculiar kind of drummer. I mean, I enjoyed him to a point, but I’m not sure I could have really played with him. I could have, but it would have been more parallel. To me, he’s more the parallel kind of player we talked about. A bit in its own space.

HGÖ: Having spoken about drummers, I’d like to ask what difference does Tyshawn Sorey make with the trio, as compared to Marcus’ contribution.

VI: It’s funny you should ask that, because, as you may know, he just played about four gigs with us last week, before Marcus joined in [on the European tour]. Yeah, very different, I worked with them both for very long, they both aspire me so much. I think there is a different emphasis, Tyshawn is more a man of extremes. He likes to push things to the breaking point and beyond. It’s this really transformative experience where you say “I didn’t even know that was humanly possible”. Sometimes, he will push you outside of yourself. So, it can be that kind of experience —which, I think, he prioritizes constantly. It’s so inspiring that it can feel a bit insane at times. I love it! We had a blast. He really pushed the music in a beautiful way, it was fantastic. I’d say that there is a little more understatement with Marcus. Let’s put it this way: when I first met Marcus, he was sixteen. I already felt like he had nothing to prove in life. Like he was already the person he would always be. And that’s probably because he grew up in an atmosphere that valued music and embraced him fully as a musician. He was allowed to be himself and had no issues. It wasn’t even like he had a chip on his shoulder because he was Roy Haynes’ grandson or anything like that. It was more like “music is just what people do, and what I do, as well as everyone in my family”. There was no pretension to assert anything, it is just there. There is a sort of beauty in how still and peaceful he is because of that. With Tyshawn, the way he grew up is very different. He grew up in the inner city of Newark, New Jersey. He didn’t grow up with a lot of wealth, privilege or anything like that. And also, he was so brilliant that people didn’t know what to make of him. When he was growing up, as was the case with Albert Einstein, they thought that maybe he was behind everyone else. He was sort of a genius that they didn’t understand him. For a long time, he felt misunderstood and then he played in a way that was a defiance. In Tyshawn’s playing, you feel that defiance. In a way, it’s empowering. His defiance is like your own defiance. I’ve been in teaching situations with him where he relates to everybody, because everybody has struggled in some way just to become themselves. When he first started playing with me, he was nineteen or twenty and he was still figuring out how to be a person. Because, in his music school experiences, it was as if he hadn’t been allowed to be a person, it was kind of that feeling. So the main difference is that, even though now he is mature, easygoing and fun, he still has at his core a defiant assertion of his identity. So that’s what you hear. How’s that?

HGÖ: A great answer. Tyshawn makes me think of your collaborations with the AACM guys, via his Anthony Braxton connection. So, how were you approached and recruited by Wadada Leo Smith and Roscoe Mitchell? Was that the George Lewis connection you already had for a decade or so?

VI: Yes, that may have been part of it. In both cases, I was called as a substitute or a replacement and not very much noticed. I’m pretty sure that George [Lewis] had something to do with it. But I’ve actually met with Wadada in the ’90s in California and I did one concert with him and James Newton. So he knew me from then and I think he (co-)referred me to Roscoe along with George. That kind of referral speaks a lot, it counts for a lot. When an artist at that level vouches for you to his fellow artists and to people he’s known for many decades, that makes a big difference. But, that was just the beginning. Once I was in, I had a lot of work to do [laughs]. It didn’t come easy at all. It’s not the average music, you know. There’s nothing obvious about it.

HGÖ: That’s one of the highest possible levels of music.

VI: [laughs] Could be, could be.

HGÖ: Did you collaborate with Craig Taborn before being together in Roscoe’s band? Or that was the first time?

VI: That was the first time. Since then, we had a lot of duo encounters.

HGÖ: Yes, and I have been to one. Have you recorded any of the performances, do you think of releasing them?

VI: Perhaps, some day. Right now, we’re on two rival record labels. I’m not sure how to resolve that.

HGÖ: So, ACT and ...Thirsty Ear Recordings?


HGÖ: Oh, ECM for Craig now, of course.

VI: It sort of creates a strange tension. You know what I thought would be cool is that the duets could be filmed sometimes.

HGÖ: Yeah, that would be interesting. How much of it consists of intuitive interaction? Is it hundred percent free improvisation? What part of it is preconceived?

VI: It’s a hundred percent improvised. There have been one time in New York where we had a bunch of words, just words. We both wrote down a bunch of words, cut them up into little pieces of paper with a single word on it, put them in a hat. Each one had a deck of words/cards. It was a bizarre experiment, it was fun though. Another time, we were in Paris, were you there?

HGÖ: Yes, I was, this year in February.

VI: Sometimes, creating a structure, we say halfway through, we switch [pianos]. That gives you a reordering of space.

HGÖ: Yes, you deal with the space much more than in the trio context. During the duos with Rudresh [Mahanthappa], during your solo performances, you have much more to deal with the space and you make another use of it. With the trio, I think, everything is more or less filled in. You don’t have much space to deal with in that context. That’s why it’s interesting to have you in different settings than the trio format.

VI: When you say “space”, do you mean lack of sound?

HGÖ: Yes, lack of sound, but I mean it also in an Ahmad Jamal or Thelonious Monk sense. Refraining from playing and also incorporating that into the whole performance. Making deliberate choices of silence.

VI: That’s interesting. I’ll have to think about that. Maybe tonight, I’ll play more silence.

HGÖ: I was made aware of the concept while reading Miles [Davis] talk about being greatly influenced by the use of space in Ahmad Jamal’s and Monk’s playing. Well, he didn’t like Monk’s comping, but that’s another question.

VI: [laughs] Well, I’m influenced by the space, I suppose it’s an ongoing investigation.

HGÖ: As for the distribution of roles for two pianos in Roscoe’s band, are there obvious choices? Or you have to decide by yourselves with Craig?

VI: I wouldn’t say obvious, but there’s notation for everybody and we don’t have the same, we have different parts. There’s a lot of open playing too. Then, we just have to be able to hear each other. That was the beginning of the duo for us. We were working on that music ten years ago.

HGÖ: It feels like you play the freest of yourself in Wadada’s and Roscoe’s bands. You delve much more into the Cecil Taylor territory there.

VI: When you say “freest of myself”, that suggests that in other contexts it’s less free. What does that mean?

HGÖ: I don’t mean any less intuitive or spontaneous, but more structured. With the trio, there isn’t any apparent soloing at times. The word doesn’t exist, but what you do is more like “trioing”.

VI: [laughs] That’s good, I like that.

HGÖ: That’s how it feels like, because you can play a piece from the beginning until the end as a whole, without dividing it into individual spots.

VI: I like “trioing”, that’s good. Has anyone else used that?

HGÖ: I don’t know. I haven’t looked it up on Google before coining the term right now.

VI: Someone probably already put out an album called Trioing.

HGÖ: Yes, probably [and that’s an accurate guess, apparently there is one by the guitarist Jonathan Kreisberg, but I’m afraid his band doesn’t trio as much as Vijay’s]. I haven’t heard many other piano trios doing it at this level, with this kind of symbiosis. That’s what makes the [Vijay Iyer] Trio one of the most interesting bands around.

VI: Thank you.

HGÖ: I would like to continue with the AACM crowd. Wadada Leo Smith explored extensively the Electric Miles period of the 1970s.

VI: I’m not sure about that.

HGÖ: Alright. Well, was playing the Fender Rhodes a Keith Jarrett kind of compromise for you? In the sense that you’ve accepted not to play the piano exclusively, in order to collaborate with someone of his stature? Is the instrument serious enough in itself for you with its own subtleties or is it more of a toy for you?

VI: I played it a lot, before and after. I used to have one in California. I would have brought it to New York, but it was sort of unfeasible. I couldn’t imagine carrying it around in New York. But the Rhodes has always been part of my arsenal and vocabulary. I enjoy it. I mean, it’s a different thing. You know, plenty of guitarists play electric guitar and acoustic guitar, and to me, it’s like that. Each one has its own affordances, like its own set of possibilities that affect the overall dynamic of the ensemble. Rhodes has a much greater sustain and also greater power. You could say maybe less subtlety, but I don’t know. You could get in there with a lot of timbral things. You could manipulate timbre in real time. When I play it, I’m always messing with the EQ and I’ll usually bring a delay. Just treating, you know. It’s electric, but it’s not unexpressive. It’s very expressive. In terms of Wadada, I don’t think that Miles was so explicit a reference. That inevitably gets hung on. Because the music has so much variety. That’s not just a bunch of grooves.

HGÖ: Yes, of course. The Miles thing was just a point of departure maybe, to build his own thing upon.

VI: It’s one of many. He is a composer and his music is very detailed, very intricate and very episodic, colorful and symbolic. It has a lot of grounding in extramusical thought, particularly in mystical roots of Islam.

HGÖ: Yes, one can tell that only by the titles.

VI: When I toured with him, it was for several years. On any given set, we could do a huge variety of sounds and textures. One moment it would sound like delicate chamber music, another moment it would sound like Hendrix. It could just be all of that. He is just drawing from everything he knows. It was really beautiful. The other day on the train, I was just listening to some live recordings I found on a computer from 2005. With Ronald Shannon Jackson on drums. There’s some crazy stuff on that record [mutual laughter]. It was great.

HGÖ: It was really intriguing for me to see Ronald Shannon Jackson sound exactly like Jack Dejohnette on the piece Wadada dedicated to him, entitled “DeJohnette” [from the Golden Quartet’s 2008 record, Tabligh]. I don’t know if that was a conscious choice, but...

VI: You think he sounded exactly like him? Well, I think he’s got a polyphony going on, that’s maybe reminiscent. I doubt that Jack says he sounds exactly like him.

HGÖ: Anyway, it felt like that. Maybe I was manipulated by the title. I think it’s that polyphonic thing going on, treating the drum set pianistically in a way.

VI: That’s good, I like that.

HGÖ: That’s what Jack says, I think.

VI: Yes.

HGÖ: As a former pianist.

VI: He’s a great piano player.

HGÖ: He’s really impressive. I’ve heard The Jack DeJohnette Piano Album. The way he played “Countdown” (John Coltrane) and “Minority” by Gigi Gryce, that was something else. Quite discouraging too.

[Mutual laughter]

VI: I heard his band at Birdland and was hanging out with them afterwards. Jack went on the piano after the club closed. He was just playing all kinds of stuff, it was great.

HGÖ: I have many questions left, from now on I’ll proceed in an eclectic way. I have read you emphasizing the importance of the context when picking up a piece to interpret. I wonder, in what context you chose to play “Wildflower” by Herbie Nichols?

VI: Well, I’m a fan and that line was so mysterious to me. I mean all his tunes are mysterious. But especially because the changes of that tune are pretty ordinary. You know, the A section is this stock I-VI-ii-V-I thing in B-flat. There’s a thousand tunes like that, but somehow that melody makes you hear everything differently. It’s all these weird curlicues that seem like they’re in a different key, and it all works. So, when I listened to it again, I said to myself “what the hell is this? What’s going on here?”. I just had to figure out what it was, and as I figured out how to play it —which took me a long time, because there’s all this weird detail— I had to listen to it maybe a hundred times.

HGÖ: You didn’t have a chart or anything.

VI: No, no, I don’t ever do that. That’s not the way to learn music.

HGÖ: Yes, of course. In that case, I’m very intrigued by something concerning Herbie Nichols. Roswell Rudd published a book of his unrecorded compositions (Herbie Nichols. The Unpublished Works, Music Sales America, 2000). It seems impossible to me to tackle those compositions unrecorded by Herbie Nichols himself. Having them only on paper, how does one play and interpret that?

VI: I haven’t seen those. I should get them.

HGÖ: It’s on sale on Amazon. All his unrecorded compositions available, there’s 25 of them, something like that. Along with some introductory remarks by Roswell Rudd on his friendship with Herbie.

VI: Is it exactly as he wrote it?

HGÖ: That’s the question. I think he had some manuscripts left by Herbie at this disposition.

VI: Well, when you look at it, do you see chord symbols or do you see two hands written out?

HGÖ: Actually, I don’t have the book, because I wanted to have his recorded charts in the first place. I had to proceed by ear, transcribing.

VI: So, you learned some of his tunes?

HGÖ: Yes, I learned “Cro-Magnon Nights”. It was quite tricky, except for the left hand maybe.

VI: I find that each of those tunes has something to offer. I mean the tune is like an addition to the vocabulary. “House Party Starting”, I’d let that one in. There are some shapes in there that are sort of deceptive. Because when you first hear it, you think “oh, that’s that thing I have heard before”. But when you’re really examining you say “oh, that isn’t it at all”. It’s totally different. I thought I knew what it was, but I don’t, at all. “I don’t know what this is!”. [laughs] So, that’s a nice feeling when you get to that point. You thought you knew what was happening and then, you actually realize that you don’t know a damn thing.

[Mutual laughter]

HGÖ: Even if his compositions have been extensively recorded, what you just said is also true for Thelonious Monk.

VI: Yeah. People don’t know Monk. Most people don’t actually understand, they haven’t really studied his music in detail. Those study other people’s versions or choose to transcribe impressionistically without really looking into what he exactly meant to do. But when you do that, it’s mindblowing! Because it’s this whole other approach to sound, to harmony and to counterpoint.

HGÖ: And to rhythm...

VI: Yes, of course.

HGÖ: I think you have a profound understanding of his music. You incorporate the Monk influence to your own music in a quite subtle and hidden way at times. You show that one doesn’t have to be recording his compositions in order to expose that sort of influence by Monk. There are just hints in your pianism. In the use of octaves or two-note clusters a whole step apart. I think the closing notes of your excellent version of Andrew Hill’s “Smoke Stack” are a Monk reference too.

VI: Closing notes?

HGÖ: It’s just the “clink!” [sings the notes].

VI: Oh, that! Yeah, yeah! Well, that is a Monk reference. I do the same thing at the end of “Dogon A.D.”. It’s the sound. What I mean is that it relates to the underlying sonorities. In a way, when you hear him do that, you hear him picking out sounds that are already there, in the vibrations. They’re already there and he is just isolating them. “You hear this? It’s there already, in case you don’t, I’m just going to play it for you” [laughs]. It’s like that. But you know, to me, his influence is in every single thing I do. The main thing being the sense that you have to cultivate your own relationship with the instrument. You have to let that be the center of your sound. It’s not that you come at the piano and hurdle it. It’s not that the music comes to you, the music comes from you [Mr. Iyer’s emphasis]. It’s basically that feel of embodied unity, being in that place at the piano and being fully yourself. All those natural actions, just listening to them and building a language out of that. You know, you want to push yourself to it and transform yourself. You always hear him doing that. I mean, that crossed-hands thing... Were you there at the first set yesterday?

HGÖ: Yes.

VI: I played “The Star of a Story” with crossed hands. And actually, that piece, “Autoscopy” from Solo [ACT Music, 2010], the whole second half is with crossed-hands. No one that listens to it would say that it sounds like Monk. They would say it’s Debussy or Chopin.

HGÖ: The second half is really classical [the first half being more Cecil Taylor-like].

VI: Yeah. But you know there is a video of Monk —actually there is a lot of footage—, it’s this one where he’s playing “Lulu’s Back In Town”, live in Oslo. Most of his solo is with his hands crossed.

HGÖ: I haven’t seen that one, I’ll check it out.

VI: And you know, you’ve heard him play like that before. When you see him doing it, you say “oh, that sound I’ve heard through many times, now I know what it looks like”. Or how it is generated. Usually in the classical material, there are things like this, but just for a moment, with the hands crossed. It’s like a provisional gesture. Monk sustains a provisional gesture. You might say that he’s playing a joke, but what he’s really doing is transforming his relationship to his environment. Re-embodying himself. That transformative act is central to improvisation. That’s kind of the heart. You know, that doesn’t make you sound like Monk, it actually makes you sound more like yourself which is the best way to deal with Monk’s influence. So, that’s the idea. He was always pulling shit like that. He was really just trying to reactivate his own relationship with this. You know that story, it’s in Robin Kelley’s book [Thelonious Monk: Life and Times of an American Original, New York, 2000]. One time, some guys came over his house, maybe it was Bud [Powell] and Elmo [Hope]. They showed up at his house and he opens his door saying “you guys want to hear an airplane?”. They say “yeah!”, he says “come here” and so he went over to the piano and he had dumped a whole bunch of coins on the soundboard. And he went like this “check this out, pffffggghh” [explosion sound]. And it just buzzed forever, it sounded like the roar of an airplane [mutual laughter]. That’s hilarious. There are so many stories like that where he was like “check out this shit that I just found in the piano”. “Did you know that the piano could do this?”. His whole life was kind of made of that, you know? So, that’s really inspiring.

HGÖ: Yes. And still, he had the core of his compositions already figured out by the early 1940s. He didn’t compose that much into the 1970s.

VI: Yeah, that’s true. Well the world had to catch up to him.

HGÖ: Well, yes. It still needs to do so.

VI: True. Sometimes, it’s like that. In a way, he was just waiting for the people to catch up. That is the nature of the business? Yeah, it’s not the music, it’s the business. Because the music business doesn’t actually want you to change. They didn’t want Miles to change, they didn’t want Coltrane to change. Why change? [laughs]

HGÖ: While it’s selling so well...

VI: Exactly. And there is sort of a nostalgia trip. I was just on TSF Jazz Radio, I did an interview this morning there. I was there for an hour. I had little three-minute slots throughout the hour. In between all that, they played a lot of commercials and they played like Ray Charles, Frank Sinatra. I mean standards that most people know. Basically, it’s a nostalgia trip. Even the host, while we were off, said “well, we have to give things that they recognize, the listeners want that”. I’m glad I got in somehow. I was surprised. Basically, it’s because I did “Human Nature”. They thought “oh yeah, let’s play “Human Nature” over and over again, at last something we could sing”. I don’t know, there’s something to be learned from that, but also, there’s a resistance to the idea of transformative music.

HGÖ: Mmhmm, of course. That station is supposed to air only “enjoyable jazz” and promote some recent albums that are in the mainstream. Your inclusion comes as a bit of a surprise.

VI: Yeah, rather unlikely.

HGÖ: And, I think your Downbeat awards have something to do with that, maybe. The institutional recognition that you got includes you as a “legitimate artist” in their new repertoire.

VI: Well maybe, maybe not. It remains to be seen how long the effects of this will be remembered. You know, this is my sixteenth album and I have been on a lot of other people’s albums. And I’ve been touring in Europe since 1995. The first place I came was here [Paris].

HGÖ: With Steve Coleman?

VI: Yes, “Live at Hot Brass”. I just knew, before we went in, I said “ they’re going to ask me if this is my first time in France”. And that’s exactly the first thing they asked. Well, she said more like negatively, maybe it was just to get me: “This isn’t your first time in France?”. “I think it’s my hundredth time in France”, where the fuck have you been? [laughs] Anyway, I tried not to be mad, but I kind of saw it coming. I’ve been here so many times and yet, there’s a willful forgetting. That’s sort of the flipside of nostalgia [laughs].

HGÖ: And, do you feel that pressure about not changing from now on?

VI: I’m doing a lot of different things all the time, you know? There’s a lot of stuff I do that the jazz community doesn’t even notice.

HGÖ: It’s quite difficult to follow everything you do.

VI: There might be just a sort of fatigue [laughs]. But no, even, it’s been years since 1995, a lot of different things happened. And somehow, well, like the projects with Mike Ladd, the jazz community didn’t want to deal with such things. I just did a substantial project with him in New York. I mean we had nice audiences, but nobody from the jazz community came. No one, no musicians came. One critic came and wrote about it in The New York Times, which was nice, but it actually was out of his area. Like he shouldn’t have been assigned to review, it was a nice factual account of what happened and he said that I didn’t solo enough. That wasn’t even about me. I mean I wrote all the music, every sound he heard was there because I put it there. And he’s mad because I did just one piano solo? Which actually isn’t even true, it’s that I only took one unaccompanied piano solo. But I was improvising through the whole performance. I think there’s that “jazz itch” that needed to be scratched, it’s like: “come on, play me something burning!” [laughs]. And I don’t know, to me the music should be an occasion for a lot of things, it’s not beyond that.

HGÖ: And that project with Mike Ladd touches on contemporary American society as well. So, the jazz community and beyond are far more concerned by the content of the pieces rather than by you taking a solo or not.

VI: Yeah, I don’t know. Well really, the main experience I had was one of kind of show name, just failing to a gig. So there is only so much you could expect from that world. Meanwhile, I’m writing chamber music for various ensembles. I’m composing a lot, doing remixes, writing... So, I’m doing a lot of things and you know, I’m very fulfilled and fortunate.

HGÖ: In every project, you sound like a different pianist. I mean, with Rudresh you do something, then with the trio it’s a completely different thing. You show your versatility in every occasion and setting. And one set a night isn’t enough to showcase everything that you are capable of.

VI: Yeah, it’s too bad you couldn’t stay for the second [set last night]. Because, it was completely different, there was zero overlap [laughs].

HGÖ: Yes, that’s the problem with the Duc des Lombards, they consider the two sets as two separate concerts.

VI: Well, for us, I just felt that we had to do something else. We played some new stuff, we did “Dogon A.D.”, a couple of ballads, pieces of mine. I did a solo version of “Body and Soul”. We played “Cardio” and “Optimism”.

HGÖ: Oh, man! I’m sorry to have missed that, “Body and Soul”, “Dogon A.D.” and “Optimism” [which contains a redefinition of crescendo]. It’s quite impressive, the way you three can get that physical. I think that’s also a proof of your theoretical work on music as an embodied human experience. That kind of interaction and communication is really explosive, even the audience that isn’t performing on an instrument, can feel overwhelmed. They can feel the fire, even if their hands aren’t doing anything. The way you are able to sound like an electronic group in an all-acoustic setting while playing “Cardio” and especially “Hood”, that’s something else. Without having to use any electronic equipment.

VI: I guess there has been an orientation towards timbre, texture and touch. We’re using our hands, so there’s a tactile thing: What’s the sensation here? How does it feel like? So we’re exploring timbre and doing things where nothing is happening except that. Just solely evolving sound, with it maybe there’s some kind of rhythmic development, but it’s not soloistic. It’s just that kind of ensemble texture that unfolds. Something we all have at our disposal. I don’t think we’re the first to do that either, it’s like magnifying. I have observed that happening in free improvisation, open improvisation contexts. Certainly while playing with Roscoe. Do you have the album Far Side?

HGÖ: Yes!

VI: The first piece is half an hour long and the first ten minutes, almost nothing happens [laughs]. So brilliant! I learned something from him, something about really taking everybody with you. It’s not like “you will deal with this”. It’s actually like “you don’t change until you have the sense that everybody has heard what this is. Take your time, because it’s for everybody in that room”. That was a live concert. It really had the sense of a ritual, even though he’s a very secular guy. Then there’s still the sense of transformative power of music in a space with people.

HGÖ: Yeah, it’s sort of a communion.

VI: Yeah, and honestly that’s what happens in dance clubs. I mean, that’s what DJs are dealing with. You know, stuff gets written off like “oh, that’s not music” or “they’re not playing”. A lot of expertise with the same exact phenomenon... Dance is a way of listening. It’s propelled more rhythmically. It’s in that Robert Hood stuff or other intricate unfolding of massive polyrhythms and also very subtle transformations of temper which is a hallmark of house music, sweeping the filters on the synthesizer. So all that stuff comes from the same place. People want to say “oh, that’s a stylistic reference”, but it’s really like another manifestation of the same basic idea which you had seen in a lot of different places. And that’s to me, what we’re trying to address, just some basic ideas.

HGÖ: During the ensemble playing and explorations with the trio, can you say that Rudresh might as well have been there doing his thing in parallel to what’s happening collectively? While you’re not taking solos in an explicit way...

VI: There have been such things, there are some pieces in the quartet repertoire. There is a piece on Reimagining called “Experience”, remember that? Also, on Blood Sutra, there is a piece called “Questions of Agency”. Those involve a lot of collective unfolding. Even, he’s on In What Language [with Mike Ladd, released in 2003]. There’s a piece on that called “DeGaulle” (it’s about the airport), that’s a very environmental kind of piece. He and Ambrose [Akinmusire], the two horns play events, rather than blow and take a solo. It’s more like “you’re going to play in this measure, that would be either the written material or your own statement”. That was less about taking solos and more about offering improvisational elements to the ensemble. So, I’ve been dealing with that stuff for a while now.

HGÖ: Is the collaboration with Rudresh still going on while you’re both leaders in your own right?

VI: Yes, from time to time we find ways to intersect. He played with us in August in Ontario. We have some duo things.

HGÖ: I’d like to ask you about micro-tonal approach. Especially, you played recently on Hafez Modirzadeh’s album, Post-Chromodal Out! You have studied the South Indian musical heritage as well. After having played with Modirzadeh, have you considered retuning your piano with Tirtha for example?

VI: That was Hafez’s doing. I guess I can see it being worth exploring sometimes. It’s not just about the tuning of the notes, it’s about how you navigate melodically. The pathways between notes are sort of where the essence of that music is. That’s called gamaka. You have some discrete set of pitches, but then you create these continuous transformations of each which are more melodic, that are melismatic. That’s obviously hard to do on the piano. I guess you’d use your knuckles [laughs]. To me the priority is achieving something like that. Because Monk could be into this, he could create that sense of things’ spirit. That’s a certain kind of illusion and I feel like I’m not getting into the approach.

HGÖ: Via different combinations of scales and series of notes?

VI: Yeah well, to be honest, when you hear what you think is a melody on piano, you’re actually hearing someone pushing down buttons, right? It’s completely discreet, your mind completes the picture. It’s all illusion, there’s no continuum [laughs]. So, at some level, it’s just a matter of degrees, it’s just a matter of how detailed you can get with that.

HGÖ: Having delved into that territory, did the micro-tonal approach and the study of South Indian musical traditions made you reconsider the potential of your first instrument, the violin?

VI: [laughs] I don’t know if there was a causal relationship there, but I play violin with my daughter. I’m just getting into the sound of it and I’ve been writing for strings. I wrote a solo violin piece that was recorded this year and I’ve written a few string quartets. I like writing for strings, so I’ve been dealing with the resonance of that instrument. You know, like what makes it resonate the most? Then you start getting into at least the spectrum, and the overtone series which takes you away from equal temperament. That’s important to me, to be able to get that.

HGÖ: You were lucky enough to be introduced to music at the age of three, thanks to your parents. And your daughter is quite lucky to have you as a father for her musical education.

VI: I’m not sure she would say that [laughs]. She actually hates practicing with me. Because I think I know too much or something. She’s mad.

HGÖ: Hopefully, she’ll come to like it eventually. We can now proceed with the blindfold test.

VI: OK, what do you want me to do? Identify them, say what I think?

HGÖ: Yes, identify them and comment on them as you like.

VI: Here it goes [listens to Roscoe Mitchell, “Ericka”, Nonaah, 1977].
So, was it Roscoe?

HGÖ: Yes! That’s “Ericka” from Nonaah (1977). It might as well have been Braxton.

VI: That’s what I was trying to figure out. Was it Roscoe or Braxton?

HGÖ: It might be difficult to figure that out here.

VI: They spent a lot of time together. In particular, Braxton was really influenced by Roscoe, as he says himself. But I guess I recognized certain things. I would have said from the first few seconds, that it was Roscoe, but I wanted to make sure. What was nice is that when it starts out, you think there is a sweetness to it. He’s another man of extremes, he’s like Tyshawn. Actually, he and Tyshawn just made a duo album. I can’t wait to hear it. He’s slowly twisting that [sweetness] and you think “what the hell is going on?”. So, that’s what started to happen. But dear God, I’m a huge admirer, he has changed my life so many times just in the course of playing. Really incredible.

HGÖ: Shall we get to the next one?

VI: OK! [listens to Cecil Taylor, “Pots”, Mixed, 1961].
Can you tell me the year?

HGÖ: 1961.

VI: The playing sounds like Cecil. The writing sounds a little more self-conscious. Maybe it’s that period of Cecil’s.

HGÖ: Yes, the writing’s kind of peculiar, “Ellingtonian” in a way [thanks to Ethan Iverson for his insights and knowledge on this record]. You’re right, this is Cecil Taylor. It’s “Pots” on Mixed, half of an LP shared with Roswell Rudd on Impulse.

VI: Yeah, of course, “Pots” and “Bulbs”. That’s some incredible writing.

HGÖ: Yes, and for so many great horn players: Jimmy Lyons, Archie Shepp, Roswell Rudd, Ted Curson.

VI: Ted just died.

HGÖ: Yes, he recently passed.

VI: There’s a lot of intricate detail and counterpoint here. About Cecil, people think he’s playing free all the time or just playing open. He actually has got so many compositional elements. What his language is made out of is so specific that he’s almost never playing free actually.

HGÖ: Yeah, it’s so precise. And only those who listen to him superficially dare claiming that he doesn’t know how to play.

VI: I don’t even know how that can be said. If you see a footage of him, it’s like...

HGÖ: It’s really incredible. Even Miles who doesn’t appreciate him necessarily, admits Cecil’s technical proficiency on the instrument [the famous quote "Who’s that motherfucker? He can’t play shit!" is slightly misleading]. Besides his knowledge and extensive understanding of the instrument, he also has a physical advantage with those large hands and long fingers, I think. They contribute in some way to his creative playing and to his ability to obtain sounds from the piano that others cannot produce.

VI: I don’t know. It’s that he developed it by himself. I don’t think if it’s merely because of his physical disposition.

HGÖ: Yes, of course not.

VI: I don’t think his hands are that big. My hands might be bigger than his. I’ve seen him and shaken his hand. Well, Randy Weston’s hands are big. Cecil’s hands are agile, he can open them up in weird ways, but they’re not gigantic.

HGÖ: I was under that impression watching some of his videos on Youtube.

VI: Oh, yeah. He’s a little guy though, he’s not that big. He’s a small guy with normal size hands. So, when you watch him at the piano, it seems like all hands, but it actually isn’t. Maybe one more?

HGÖ: I’ll have two more pieces for you.

VI: [listens to Misha Mengelberg, “House Party Starting”, Change of Season: Music of Herbie Nichols, 1985] [laughs]
It’s somebody doing a Herbie Nichols tune. It sounds like, it could be Lacy and Roswell.

HGÖ: You’re close. It’s Lacy alright.

VI: But with George.

HGÖ: Yes exactly, with George Lewis. And the pianist is Misha Mengelberg.

VI: You know, I just played with Misha. It’s an interesting idea to spread that music for horns, but somehow, when you do that, when you arrange it like that where you’re just focusing on the melody and not all the other components, you’re losing something. To me it sounded a little simplified. All the elements are there, but it seemed out of balance. The specific sonorities of the left hand, those low triads are such an important part, they give this unsettled, bizarre, David Lynch kind of feeling [mutual laughter].  Sinister, that’s the word, there’s something sinister about it. And that sounded just a bit too jolly.

HGÖ: Herbie himself, I think, wanted to hear his music played by horns. He unfortunately didn’t have the opportunity because of the music industry.

VI: I would be curious to hear how he might have arranged it. Even in that Cecil arrangement, it’s not just spreading the melody, it’s that actually everything is vertically connected. I would think that would probably be more how Herbie would have orchestrated. That’s how Monk orchestrated the quartet.

HGÖ: The Town Hall Orchestra comes to my mind.

VI: Yeah, that was with Hall Overton.

HGÖ: Yes, Hall Overton!

VI: But yes, that was inspired by Monk’s approach. Alright, the next one [listens to Alexander von Schlippenbach, “Trinkle-Tinkle”, Monk’s Casino, 2005]. It’s someone playing “Trinkle-Tinkle”. I like the drummer and the horn player. But I’m not sure about the piano player.

HGÖ: He’s the leader, Alex von Schlippenbach.

VI: Oh, OK. The way they orchestrated, the whole band playing the head is a bit busy. In a way, “de-groovified” or something. I just hung out with him the other day too, we were on a symposium together. I guess different people latch onto the different aspects of Monk’s music. I think he latched onto a certain jokiness. But he’s also a serious musician, I really admire him, you know? So, who were the other players?

HGÖ: Rudi Mahall on the bass clarinet, he’s the most famous one.

VI: Is it all European guys?

HGÖ: Yes, the others are Axel Dörner (trumpet), Jan Roder (bass), Uli Jennessen (drums).

VI: Clearly trying to be Dolphy-esque on the bass clarinet. I saw Don Byron play solo a long time ago, in a workshop in 1991. He said “people get stuck on Dolphy when it comes to the bass clarinet, as if there’s no other way to play it”.

HGÖ: He’s the ultimate reference, I think.

VI: It’s also like the lack of any other influences. They just need to offer something different. Anyway, thank you for this entertaining encounter.

HGÖ: It’s my pleasure, thank you so much for your time.


  1. Fantastic interview! Such a pleasure to read an interview conducted by someone with so much knowledge. I look forward to keeping up with your blog.

    1. Thank you very much for your kind words Dave! I'll try to keep it interesting, this is just the beginning.