Just the Right Time for a ‘Nondenominatlonal Leader’ in Music

Just the Right Time for a ‘Nondenominatlonal Leader’ in Music

“One thing that’s been fascinating is Vijay’s whole notion of music as community,” said Thomas W. Morris, Ojai’s artistic director, who worked with Mr. Iyer to design the program. “To me, it is an extremely resonant concept, and I suspect it will have a lasting impact on how we think of Ojai.”


This fall, Mr. Iyer, 45, will release “Far From Over,” his first recording with his sextet. Credit Jake Michaels for The New York Times

Mr. Iyer will perform multiple orchestral works he has written, including collaborations with the Brentano String Quartet and the International Contemporary Ensemble. A chamber group will play the compositions of Mario Diaz de Leon, an electronic musician influenced by contemporary noise music as much as by the 20th-century European composers.

The musician and scholar George Lewis’s ambitious opera, “Afterword,” which tells an allegorical history of Chicago’s historic and still-formidable Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, will be staged on Friday night. A chamber performance of the pianist Courtney Bryan’s “Yet Unheard,” with a libretto based on the life of Sandra Bland, the black woman found dead in a Texas jail after a traffic stop with a white state trooper, will close things on Saturday.

Mr. Lewis, 64, was on Mr. Iyer’s doctoral committee in the 1990s, when Mr. Iyer was working toward a Ph.D. in neural cognition at the University of California, Berkeley, and it’s partly through Mr. Lewis that he comes to his approach. Mr. Lewis is the author of a definitive history of the association, and he connected Mr. Iyer with musicians in the group. Its story, which begins in 1965, is one of musician-led organizing; as a result, creativity and community, rather than commercial classifications, have defined its output.

“If you look at the A.A.C.M., and even its visual iconography, that sort of thing plays havoc with these fealties to certain traditions,” Mr. Lewis said. Of Mr. Iyer, he added, “He has drawn a community of people around himself who are furthering that.”

Mr. Iyer never attended a conservatory or competed in a career-making piano competition. Instead he apprenticed himself to Mr. Lewis and Steve Coleman, another Chicago-born self-starter with a researcher’s mind and a proclivity for novel amalgams.

Mr. Iyer carried some of that insurgent ethic with him in 2014 to Harvard, where he established a doctoral program in cross-disciplinary music studies and has been instrumental in persuading the music department to de-emphasize its core curriculum.


Mr. Iyer’s “Emergence” will have its premiere at the Ojai Music Festival. Credit Jake Michaels for The New York Times

In April, the university announced that it would do away with its long-held requirements for music majors, adding legitimacy to a raft of other coursework, much of it non-Eurocentric or performance-based. The change will take effect this fall and could have a rippling effect on other music departments.

“We’re accommodating more perspectives,” Mr. Iyer said. “It’s basically more reflective of our student body and of the 21st century.”

His Village Vanguard debut last month had a barnstorming feeling — but that’s built into the music. Mostly, the air was one of arrival. With the bassist Stephan Crump and the drummer Tyshawn Sorey, his longtime trio-mates, Mr. Iyer played hourlong sets with almost no interruptions, patterned sequences full of truncated pacings.


Mr. Iyer preparing a new piece for the festival. Credit Jake Michaels for The New York Times

Mr. Iyer and Mr. Sorey (who plays about half the trio’s gigs, splitting duties with Marcus Gilmore) both use their instruments to create three-dimensional systems of balance. Their roles blur, such that Mr. Iyer’s piano works like a kind of dreamlike percussion instrument (you can think of its effect as distantly related to the West African mbira, or the Balinese gamelan), while Mr. Sorey’s burly rhythms can have an effect usually reserved for harmonic instruments: logical, resonant, encompassing.

But as it turns out, this may be only part of Mr. Iyer’s story. We knew from his work with large ensembles (much of it on display at Ojai) that he had the mind of an arranger — but until now his sextet, which has gigged around since 2011, has been a relatively well-kept secret.

That will change this fall, when he releases “Far From Over,” his third disc on ECM Records and his first with the sextet. (The label has not set an exact release date.) His trio music works largely as a reminder that today’s audiences are happy to hear a band whose main concerns are contrast and pulse; Mr. Iyer’s melodies often seem to be prismatic refractions of his harmonies, which in turn feel like extensions of the underlying cadence. The gambit of the post-1960 jazz piano trio — where even innovators like Ahmad Jamal and Bill Evans had to stake out a personal brand of lyricism — no longer applies.

With the sextet, Mr. Iyer is applying a similar ethic on a larger scale, with the alto saxophonist Steve Lehman, the tenor saxophonist Mark Shim and the trumpeter Graham Haynes joining Mr. Sorey and Mr. Crump. On the album’s title track, “Far From Over,” the three horns work in much the same way as Mr. Iyer’s piano, building harmonic structures and compact melodic patterns that shift around a base chord, toggling its center of gravity.

The title comes from a piece Mr. Iyer wrote in 2008, when Barack Obama had just been elected president. “There was clearly a massive optimism there,” Mr. Iyer said. “But I also wanted to say that there’s still a lot to do, and he’s not going to be able to do all of it.”

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