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For Vijay Iyer, A Livestream From The Village Vanguard is Another Opportunity to Speak Out

Stacy Kimball

Artistry and activism have always been fully entwined in the music of Vijay Iyer.

So it should come as no surprise that he sees his livestream trio engagement at The Village Vanguard this weekend as a chance to engage with our cultural moment, and the topic of systemic racism. During a recent phone interview, Iyer reflected on what form that commentary might take.

“It’s not like we're protesting quarantine,” he says, laughing. “But in a way, because these two stories are the same story — the pandemic and the season of a protest that we’re in — to me, it gives us a chance to respond to both at once. And particularly because the history of this music is doing just that: meeting the needs of the moment, responding to the circumstances, shining a light on suffering and terror and answering back to it.”

Jazz artists have always produced work in this spirit, and Iyer is self-conscious about his place in that continuum. But he also carries a personal inspiration via the memory of poet, playwright and critic Amiri Baraka, a former mentor and collaborator (and of course, father of Newark Mayor Ras Baraka). 

“Amiri told me this story,” Iyer says. “He was arrested during the Newark uprising of ’67, and put in in solitary. That was when Coltrane died. And a policeman sort of slid the door back just to gloat in his face. He said: ‘Oh, your boy Coltrane just died. Ha, ha.’ And then closed the door. So to me, it’s just remembering and reflecting on his legacy and his impact on my life — because I knew him for maybe 18 years, and played with him for about six of those. And his writings still live with me.”

A piece called “For Amiri Baraka” appears on Iyer’s widely acclaimed sextet album Far From Over, released in 2017. He has taken to pairing it with another theme, titled “Combat Breathing.” That dyad seems likely to factor in this weekend’s livestreams; here is a video of Iyer and his trio performing it on Live From Here.

“Combat Breathing” is named after a phrase by political philosopher Frantz Fanon. Iyer composed the piece in 2014, a year of widespread Black Lives Matter protests. Iyer had a residency that fall during the BAM Next Wave Festival, and he brought that spirit onstage. “I worked with this choreographer, Paloma McGregor, who has a collective called Dancing While Black,” he says. “She summoned a bunch of her collaborators and basically did a die-in onstage.”

Credit Rahav Segev / BAM
Vijay Iyer with members of Dancing While Black at the BAM Next Wave Festival, 2014

Noting that 2014 was the year of Ferguson, MO, as well as Eric Garner’s killing on Staten Island, Iyer adds: “There were die-ins outside of BAM that same week. So for us it was about creating continuity between the safe inner sanctum of the BAM Harvey Theater and what’s right outside the door.”

In a searching interview with Robin D.G. Kelley late last year, published in the Boston Review, Iyer interrogates the word “ally,” suggesting that it’s meaningless without accompanying action.

Iyer’s most recent release is InWhatStrumentals(Pi Recordings) — an instrumental version of In What Language?, his first multimedia collaboration with poet Mike Ladd, which took aim at the security apparatus after 9/11. (All proceeds from its sale will support immigrant groups and communities of color disproportionately affected by COVID-19.)

“I'm a nonblack person who has been in collaboration and conversation and community with black artists and black musicians and people form the black community for close to 30 years now,” Iyer reflects. “It always gives me an occasion to check myself, in terms of my relationship to all that, and what is it that I can do better right now, to try to hold space and support.”

Credit courtesy of the artist
courtesy of the artist
Jeremy Dutton at The Village Vanguard, 2019

The trio that Iyer brings into The Village Vanguard is the same one featured on Live From Here, with Nick Dunston on bass and Jeremy Dutton on drums. “Working with two young African American musicians is really important,” Iyer says. “I wanted to give them space to shine and be themselves, and just support them. So that this is not about me — it’s about us doing something together.”

The Vijay Iyer Trio will perform livestreams at The Village Vanguard on Saturday at 7 p.m. EDT and Sunday at 2 p.m. EDT; purchase tickets here.

On Tuesday, June 23 at 7 p.m., Vijay Iyer will join Larry Blumenfeld and Shana L. Redmond in a conversation as part of a Jazz and Social Justice series at The National Jazz Museum in Harlem.

(A final side note: this week, American Public Media announced that it would no longer be producing Live From Here; host Chris Thile shared the sad news on social media.)

A veteran jazz critic and award-winning author, and a regular contributor to NPR Music.