It might seem strange that Vijay Iyer gave up a promising career in physics to play jazz piano, but once you've heard his music, that decision makes perfect sense. Reimagining, his 2005 release on the Savoy label, offers up sonic landscapes that are as strange as string theory, melodies that seem dizzyingly weightless, and rhythms as complex as Einstein's math, but they all come together in viscerally pleasing form.
"I have to say that physics is something that I left for music, you know," says the 35-year-old pianist, reached at home in New York City. "It's like my ex. But I spent six years in that world, and what I really loved about it was that you could use something as elegant as algebra to describe physical phenomena. That was, to me, kind of stunning–that there could be this connection between what seems like abstraction and something that's really happening in the world."
Listeners may well be similarly stunned by the music that Iyer makes with his taut and telepathic quartet. It's certainly abstract: the Rochester, New York–born musician is the natural heir to such avatars of jazz complexity as Cecil Taylor, Anthony Braxton, and Steve Coleman. But there are also moments in his playing that offer easier points of access: sometimes he'll hammer on a single, high-register note and you'll catch a hint of the tabla players he heard in his South Asian parents' home; elsewhere he'll touch on a salsa chord progression or hint at new-music minimalism.
"To me, it's important to listen to what's around you, to listen to what the world is handing you and try to make sense of it through whatever means you can," he says. "For me, that's always been about an artistic synthesis–kind of using music as a space to process all this information and try to resolve it, try to make temporary sense of it."
The many layers of Iyer's compositions reflect that quest, just as they also reflect the city he's called home since 1998. "You feel New York as soon as you hit the ground," says the onetime Bay Area resident. "It's about having to cut through a lot of noise to be heard, basically. And that just trickles down into the way one creates, musically."
In California, he notes, he had more time to create but less of a need to be creative. "I could put out a record, but it was kind of like a tree falling in the forest in terms of whether it would reach anybody. Here, it's glutted with ambitious musicians, so of course everyone's vying for the same handful of scraps. But it also does feel like when you're here, the world is watching."
The world is certainly beginning to listen to this ambitious and accomplished performer, and why not? In his virtuosity and his love of hybrid forms, he represents the future of jazz.
The Vijay Iyer Quartet plays the Vancouver East Cultural Centre on Wednesday (June 27).