Pilgrimage: Vijay Iyer



Tirtha is a Sanskrit word that literally means ‘ford’ or ‘river crossing’. In the Hindu sacred space a tirtha is holy place of pilgrimage, which as it so happens, often are on the banks of rivers, lakes or seas.  One visits a tirtha, a place where you can cross a river or other body of water, so that you can absorb the sacred energy and cross from the human to the spiritual world.  Varanasi, one of the world’s most hoary cities, is the most important tirtha in India but there are countless others: Prayag, Puri, Kedarnath, Tirupathi, Dwarkanath.

Vijay Iyer, is generally regarded as among the very best of a growing horde of very exciting, contemporary jazz musicians working in the USA of South Asian origin.

Born to south Indian immigrant parents Iyer started off with music a passion but with a career as a physicist firmly in his eyes. But as these things go, the heart won out and the world of quantum and string theory was left behind.

Vijay Iyer

Vijay Iyer

Born in Albany, New York in 1971 and raised in Rochester, New York, Vijay Iyer is the son of Indian Tamil immigrants to the US. He received 15 years of Western classical training on violin beginning at the age of 3. He began playing the piano by ear in his childhood, and is mostly self-taught on that instrument. Vijay was also exposed to some Carnatic classical and religious music in his youth. His high school years saw a growing interest in jazz. After completing an undergraduate degree in mathematics and physics at Yale University when he was 20, Iyer then went to the University of California, Berkeley initially to pursue a doctorate in physics. Iyer continued to pursue his musical interests, serving as the house pianist in jam sessions at the Bird Kage (a club in North Oakland) and playing in ensembles led by drummers E. W. Wainwright and Donald Bailey. In 1994 he started working with Steve Coleman and George E. Lewis and became associated with the musicians’ collective Asian Improv. In 1995 he left the physics department and assembled an interdisciplinary Ph.D. program in Technology and the Arts, focusing on music cognition. His 1998 dissertation, titled Microstructures of Feel, Macrostructures of Sound: Embodied Cognition in West African and African-American Musics, applied the dual frameworks of embodied cognition and situated cognition to music.

Now an acclaimed New York-based jazz pianist, composer, bandleader, and producer, he performs around the world with his ensembles and collaborations, including his Grammy-nominated trio with Stephan Crump and Marcus Gilmore; the experimental collective Fieldwork, featuring Steve Lehman and Tyshawn Sorey; the new South Asian chamber trio Tirtha, featuring guitarist Prasanna and tabla player Nitin Mitta; his large-scale works with poet-performer Mike Ladd; and Raw Materials, his longstanding duo with saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa. His trio album Historicity was nominated for a 2010 Grammy for Best Instrumental Jazz Album, and was named #1 album of the year in many publications, including the Downbeat Magazine International Critics Poll, the Village Voice Annual Jazz Critics Poll, the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Detroit Metro Times, PopMatters, and others. His trio won the 2010 Jazz Echo Award (aka the “German Grammy”) for best international ensemble. Iyer was named the 2010 Musician of the Year by the Jazz Journalists Association. (Read More)

While Iyer has, and continues to perform with a wide range of fellow artists, most of whom have no connection or affinity with his Indian roots, and while he would not want to be typecast as a musician confined by the label ‘South Asian’, some of his most outstanding and interesting work is with fellow Indo-Pakistani-American musicians.

Tirtha (2011) is one such, the focus of tonight’s post. My relationship to music is intuitive rather than technical, historic or analytical.  I respond to a piece or an artist or an album from the heart.  If it speaks to me I listen.  I know jazz lovers who are acute and insightful critics of the music from a mechanistic point of view. They can identify the changes and structures and sub-rhythms and seem to find pleasure in that.  And why not?  But it’s not me.

What intrigues me and draws me to this music, among other things, is the concept of tirtha.  A place to which one travels to cross over to another realm. The titles of the tracks all lend themselves to pilgrim concerns and as such are explorations of the spirit world and the human relationship to it.

Duality.  One of the basic debates in Indian philosophy is that of the nature of reality. Some hold that there does in fact, exist a duality between self and Self, even though the most profound and wide spread view is non-duality: we are all part of the One.   One cannot avoid such debates when on pilgrimage.

A longing for Abundance, whether of wealth, wisdom or love is what drives all pilgrims to tirtha. But equally, the devotee is confronted with Falsehood at the same time. Am I worthy? Are my motives untrue? Indeed, are the gods dealing with me falsely?

As anyone who has been on pilgrimage, or even just observed the faithful, knows, the essence of the journey is about throwing down a Gauntlet before the Divine. If you provide me this, I’ll do that. If you show me your face, I’ll correct my ways.  But back home the urgency is lost as Entropy and Time take their toll.  The pilgrimage becomes but a Remembrance.

Each track on this enchanting album acts like a ‘station’ along the pilgrim’s path. Focusing the attention of the supplicant, causing his mind to reflect and his spirit to take comfort, even if That Which is Sought remains far off, illusive or unclear.

Iyer’s subtle and suggestive piano playing is supported by sinewy guitar picking by another Indian-American, Prasanna and flowing taals from Nitin Mitta, a young north Indian percussionist.



Nitin Mitta

Nitin Mitta

Peace and joy!

Tirtha Tirtha_0001

Track Listing:

01 Duality

02 Tribal Wisdom

03 Tirtha

04 Abundance

05 Falsehood

06 Gauntlet

07 Polytheism

08 Remembrance

09 Entropy And Time


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