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Always Creating: Pianist Vijay Iyer Reflects on a Key Directive From His Elders, on The Checkout

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Monica Jane Frisell
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ECM Records

One thing I’ve noticed over two decades’ worth of interviews with Vijay Iyer, the award-winning pianist and composer, is that he doesn’t instinctively start talking about himself. He’s much more inclined to spread the musical gospel and teachings of the masters before him. 

During a recent conversation at his home in Harlem, he had us listen to one of Geri Allen’s earliest recorded performances, on the Blue Note album V by drummer Ralph Peterson. Iyer cites Allen as a core piano influence, and he offered a thoughtful appreciation of three more: Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk and Muhal Richard Abrams. 

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Credit Tomak Hoax/ECM
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Vijay Iyer and Craig Taborn

Iyer also describes the exact moment he first heard multireedist and composer Roscoe Mitchell. His relationship with Mitchell not only changed his piano playing forever, but also provided the catalyst for a fruitful musical partnership with Craig Taborn. 

Iyer and Taborn released an illuminating piano duo album this year called The Transitory Poems, on the esteemed German label ECM. Iyer will perform a duo with his labelmate Wadada Leo Smith at Jazz at Lincoln Center this Friday and Saturday as part of ECM Records at 50. Hear them talk about their ECM album A Cosmic Rhythm With Each Stroke on a previous Checkout episode below.

That epic concert also features a stunning lineup of legacy talent, like drummer Jack DeJohnette; guitarists Egberto Gismonti and Bill Frisell; vocalist and performance artist Meredith Monk; and trumpeter Enrico Rava.

Iyer never fails to inspire with his insight. And despite all of his breathtaking accomplishments over the last decade — a MacArthur fellowship; a tenured post at Harvard; key appointments at the Ojai Music Festival and now Wigmore Hall in London — he keeps things in perspective, believing that favor comes and goes. What continues to be most important for him is a life lesson bestowed by several of his elders, who were Always Creating.

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For more than 15 years, Simon Rentner has worked as a host, producer, broadcaster, web journalist, and music presenter in New York City. His career gives him the opportunity to cover a wide spectrum of topics including, history, culture, and, most importantly, his true passion of music from faraway places such as Europe, South America, and Africa.