For years, jazz pianist Vijay Iyer and Walker Art Center curator Philip Bither have talked about featuring his music in -- as Iyer puts it --"more than a drive-by."
"The Sound of Surprise: A Vijay Iyer Mini-Festival" finally arrives Thursday and Friday, and it couldn't come at a better time. Iyer has emerged as one of the most respected, influential and popular artists in jazz, amid a creative surge that includes perhaps his best record yet, "Accelerando," due March 13.
Once stereotyped as overly cerebral -- a criticism built on his egghead credentials (he has a master's in physics from Berkeley) as well as his Indian- American heritage and the dense complexity of some of his songs -- Iyer prefers to describe his music as "visceral." Certainly the blizzard of music he has released over the past couple of years demolishes the stereotype.
"I like music that reaches out and does something," said Iyer, who turned 40 in October. "I like when it becomes less about notes and abstract forms and becomes about the physicality of the experience.
"We have to remind ourselves about what music is for in the first place. Now we are used to hearing it as this disembodied thing, without the context, but it began as a way for us to commune and to have a shared experience that was about rhythm and collective action."
The best parts of "Accelerando" are visceral in exactly that way. Like "Historicity," the last record by Iyer's longtime trio, which topped jazz polls in 2009 and broadened his base among the rock audience, it ranges across the stylistic spectrum with a deft mixture of Iyer originals and unlikely cover tunes.
"Optimism" is a bristling, resplendent original that feels like a jazz variation on the rock power trio concept pioneered by Cream and the Who. It is followed by "The Star of the Story" by the R&B dance group Heatwave, then a wonderfully discursive rendition of Michael Jackson's "Human Nature." Songs by iconic jazz composers Henry Threadgill and Herbie Nichols are also included.
Solo, duo, trio
But the Vijay Iyer Trio, which includes bassist Stephan Crump and drummer Marcus Gilmore, will occupy just one of the six sets during Iyer's mini-fest.
Thursday night will open with the first formal duo performance by Iyer and trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith, a member of the legendary Chicago collective AACM. Then Iyer will perform alone before closing out the evening with his trio.
On Friday, Iyer's middle set on solo piano will be bracketed by a pair of piquant collaborations. He'll open with the Parisian hip-hop and spoken-word artist Mike Ladd, his partner in a 2003 disc ("In What Language?") inspired by the experience of an Iranian filmmaker wrongly detained at a New York airport. Iyer describes it as "imagining a new moment for community in the post-9/11 world of surveillance of people of color, which has created a force for us coming together."
The mini-festival will conclude with a set by Tirtha, his trio with Indian natives Nittan Mitta on tabla drums and Prasanna on guitar and vocals. The group released a self-titled record last winter.
"Even Tirtha to me is a political project," says Iyer, nodding to the thematic subtext of Friday's program, "because it encourages shared creativity across the South Asian diaspora."
Clearly, Iyer and Bither have succeeded in organizing more than a drive-by. Now Iyer is hoping to create that visceral experience so vital to his music.
"What I like to do over the course of an evening is create an arc of experience, where even when you have two or three sets with one band, the second or third set is connected to the first set. It is about the feeling of the space and the connection to the audience, a very spontaneous, organic process, where I am constantly taking the temperature of the room.
"The challenge is how to create that when the musicians who play with me onstage won't have that same [complete] experience. Obviously, I don't want it to be boring, but it is more than that: I want to activate."