Sunday, June 26, 2005

Vijay Iyer piece in the Boston Globe

There's a little quote from me in a piece on Vijay Iyer in today's Boston Globe. The author of the piece is Siddhartha Mitter, who writes a lot of music related stuff for them on a freelance basis. He has a blog, called Ill Hindu, where you can see some other stories he's done recently.

Mitter is a real jazz head. I know enough to be able to say that the piano work on Iyer's recent CD, Reimagining, sounds a little like Thelonious Monk, but that's about as far as my jazz knowledge goes. Mitter can tie it into the M-Base movement at Berkeley, and also names Andrew Hill, Randy Weston, Muhal Richard Abrams, and Cecil Taylor as other influences on Iyer.

The piece on Iyer is in reference to a show Iyer will be doing in Boston this week. (He was actually in New York last week at the Jazz Standard; sadly, I couldn't go on any of the three nights -- but JusJus blogged it).

Anyway, here are some more thoughts from me on Vijay Iyer:

In terms of fusion, what jazz musicians like Vijay Iyer are doing is something quite different from anything else we're seeing in the cultural landscape right now. The kinds of musical fusion we're accustomed to seeing are generally pretty simple. A producer takes a hip hop song, and adds in a sample from a Hindi film song, or Punjabi Bhangra. The remix is a pretty simple formula, and it's pretty much subject to the language and structure of hip hop. It doesn't make the music 'bad' -- I still listen ot Bhangrafied hip hop all the time -- but it does limit the range of expression in some ways.

In contrast, the inflections from the Indian classical tradition in Iyer's work is very subtle; it's entirely possible to listen to the music without knowing about it. Jazz is also a highly inclusive art form, in which a musician like Iyer can casually put in a shade of, say, South Indian Carnatic rhythms, in the midst of a track reworking of John Lennon's "Imagine." And as an improvised form, Jazz puts fewer strong demands on the overall shape of the music, which makes it a very fertile place to blend multiple cultural strands. No one rule or concept rules the roost.

With the success of people like Vijay Iyer and Rudresh Mahanthappa, I think we'll start to see a new interest in jazz music in the Indian American community. We're already seeing it to some extent, as Vijay Iyer and his various ensembles tend to draw a fair numer of South Asians at their shows on the east coast. These are people who might ordinarily not go anywhere near places like the Jazz Standard in New

That said, it's a mistake to think of Iyer as somehow doing "Indian jazz," just because of his background. For me, jazz isn't about a racial or ethnic background so much as it is a musical language and a state of mind. What Vijay Iyer is playing in his solo work (like the recent CD Reimagining) will appeal to pretty much anyone who likes Thelonious Monk; I gather from the positive reviews of Reimagining in mainstream jazz magazines like Downbeat and the Village Voice that audiences and critics are seeing it that way too.

This is kind of a response to the "Identity Jazz" comment that bugged me in a review in the Village Voice I had mentioned a couple of weeks ago. At the time I hadn't actually heard Iyer's new CD, so I didn't go after the Voice reviewer's use of the phrase. Then I actually bought the CD ($9.90 off Itunes -- I've been listening to it a lot), and I realized that in fact the phrase simply doesn't apply at all to what Iyer is doing here. Reimagining is not "Indian Jazz" or "Identity Jazz"; it's just jazz.

I'm not 100% confident about my own claim in the first paragraph, that jazz is somehow a less determinative musical form than hip hop. I can think of some hip hop heads who might venture to disagree. (First and foremost would be the 1980s rap group Stetsasonic; they wrote "Talkin' all that jazz" as a repudiation of conservative-leaning jazz musicians who said that rap was "not music" when it first emerged...)

More generally, I have to admit that it's a pretty difficult claim to substantiate, though I don't think it would be impossible. Any thoughts?


Ms. World said...

Well, aren't you becoming Mr. Media! Good for you Amardeep- now when are you going to publish that book you've been working on for a hot minute? Of course, I have no right hounding anyone because I should have a Pulitzer by now and all I have is a bloody weblog. Cheers!

6:59 AM  
Amardeep said...

The book... the book... argh. I'm actually still trying to find an academic publisher that wants it.

I'll definitely keep people posted if I score a contract. Meanwhile, I'm sending out another proposal this week... fingers crossed...

11:11 AM  
dacoit said...

What does it mean to say that jazz is a 'less determinative' form of music than hip hop? Does this imply that a hip hop musician is in some way bound to present themsevles from a certain ingrained cultural, ethnic or political position more so than a jazz musician? If this is your meaning, I think what you say is true to a certain degree. Hip hop at present is probably more of an 'identity music' than jazz, and the mode of valorized African-American hypermasculinity that often characterizes it even finds expression in the occasional misogynistic or homophobic line of 'conscious' rappers like Common (Sense).

It seems to me, though, that the shape of jazz today has less to do with the nature of the musical form itself than with its internationalization as a color-blind bourgeois music (see: ECM records and Scandinavian jazz) and the rise of the usually private (and exorbitantly expensive) music school as the primary vetting institution for aspiring musicians rather than, say, being a sideman to Duke or Miles and doing the club circuit. I think you are very right in saying, as you do in your previous post on 'identity jazz', that African-American jazz has always been a music of the African-American community with all of the historical weight that entails, and I would add that there is something disingenuous about whitewashing this for gringo audiences (seeing comp discs that include Charles Mingus' 'Haitian Fight Song' for sale at Wal-Mart always strikes me as a bit incongruous).

I think a lot of earlier jazz musicians saw what they were doing as part and parcel of other struggles African-Americans fought out in the 20th c. US (Ken Burns captures some, but I think too little, of this in his documentary series). While one feels an acute sense of loss at the prospect that this element of jazz has been sacrificed to the market (which may be part of what Stetsasonic is reacting against), these processes also create exposure to new audiences who can remake jazz as their own musical form. While what Vijay Iyer does might not be 'Indian jazz' in his mind, the presence and involvement of largely South Asian audiences at performances serve to render jazz a desi cultural form available for advancing other projects (I am thinking of anything from activist work to marketing).

These processes of rendering a cultural form, such as jazz, 'less determinative' also are very much underway with regards to hip hop - which was not so much the case in the era of Stetsasonic. Latino rappers have been in the picture since the beginning (most visibly down here in Miami, but Puerto Rican DJs are central to the foundation myth of NYC hip hop), and in the UK in particular hip hop (along with drum & bass) is a major component of the Asian Underground movement. A lot purists might see this as bastardization, but it seems to me that for every Kenny G there is a Vijay Iyer and for every Vanilla Ice there is a FunDaMental or Aesop Rock.

7:09 PM  

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