Over the years I have asked numerous jazz musicians the same question: what goes through your mind when improvising?
The answers vary wildly, from the technically obtuse to the infuriatingly abstract, but the general consensus – whether the interviewee is a legend such as Herbie Hancock or John McLaughlin, or an unsigned music student – generally boils down to “as little as possible”.
No one has ever answered with the same illuminating insight as Vijay Iyer, an American pianist repeatedly ranked among the best improvisers of his generation, who will perform concerts at NYU Abu Dhabi tomorrow and on Friday.
“To say that we’re not thinking when we improvise is an impoverished understanding of thought because, actually, thought is distributed through action – that’s the notion of embodied cognition,” says Iyer.
“The brain and the body are not separate, not in the slightest. We’re stuck in this Western paradigm of separation between the mind and the body, and that’s just wrong – a wrong understanding of what’s going on in music, or anything we do.”
He is right, of course – philosophers and scientists alike agree that at any given moment, only a fraction of the sensory stimuli around us is registered. Yet, we react to it.
This perceptive answer draws attention not only to Iyer’s talents as the improviser voted Downbeat magazine’s Artist of Year for a third time last year, but also to his roles as a Harvard professor and MacArthur Fellow.
It’s these academic accolades, he suspects, that often lead listeners to describe his rigorous, often densely organised music as “cerebral”.
“I’ve found that people who talk about the cerebral aspect of my music aren’t really experiencing it – usually they’re responding more to my biography,” says Iyer, from his home in New York’s Harlem.
“But I don’t find anybody who comes to our performances, or lives with my recordings, has that experience – really, literally nobody.”
I might argue that Iyer’s music is both viscerally emotive and intellectually enlivening – like the music of, say, Thelonious Monk or any decent improvisational musician.
Both sides will be on display at NYUAD this weekend, when Iyer performs two very different programmes, loosely linked by the fact that they both draw on India for inspiration.
Each evening will open with a performance from Tirtha, an improvised trio project featuring two other US-based musicians of Indian descent, tabla player Nitin Mitta and guitarist Prasanna.
Conceived and first presented in 2007 to mark 60 years of Indian independence, the project, captured on Iyer’s 2011 album of the same name, highlights his continuing exploration of South Indian classical music in the jazz idiom begun on his debut recordings of the mid-1990s.
“It’s addressing my heritage in some way, trying to figure out who I am,” says Iyer.
“To be a part of this tradition of African-American creative music [jazz], and still bring something to it that isn’t already there, some element of who I am.”
The Abu Dhabi concerts will close with the far larger, more organised – and, dare we say it, cerebral – Radhe Radhe: Rites of Holi.
In this ambitious multimedia project, Iyer will lead New York’s 15-piece International Contemporary Ensemble through a chamber suite, performed alongside, and in response to, a 35-minute film documenting the dramatic, devotional festivities of Holi in the Northern Indian town of Mathura, India.
For eight days and nights, the town – known as the birthplace of Krishna – is transformed into a teaming “mosh-pit” with a cacophony of colour and sound. Iyer describes it as an “all-encompassing ritual – transformative, celebratory, intoxicating, earthy and spiritual, immersive experience.”
The project was conceived as an artistic response to Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, and was commissioned in 2013 to mark the 100th anniversary of the ballet’s premiere, which notoriously caused a near-riot among the Parisian cultured classes.
For Iyer, the inspiration was not so much musical as procedural. After returning from India, director/collaborator Prashant Bhargava began by editing 50 hours of footage to the London Symphony Orchestra’s recording of the Rite – so Iyer’s work necessarily followed the dynamic and emotional flow of Stravinsky’s masterpiece.
Performing the work has taken on greater emotional significance since Bhargava’s death in 2015. This weekend marks only the second time Iyer has performed Radhe Radhe since then.
“You can see the world through Bhargava’s eyes when you see this film,” says Iyer sombrely.
“One of his great talents was being able to see the humanity in ordinary folks and exalt that essence – that’s what you see happening through his lens.”
With such a cerebral reputation – justified or otherwise – it’s intriguing to discover what spirituality Iyer finds in the world. He describes the euphoria of creating music in almost cosmic terms
“The spirituality I feel is through making music, being a conduit for those kind of energies, the ritual that music is,” says Iyer.
“I’ve travelled around the world and perform all the time, so I’m constantly put in a place where I and 1,000 other people are experiencing something together which is kind of heightened or haloed – it feels like a sacred thing. An experience of communing and releasing inhibitions, forgetting who and what we are, and just becoming part of something larger than ourselves – that’s how it works for me”.
• Vijay Iyer performs at the Red Theatre, New York University Abu Dhabi tomorrow and Friday, 8pm, register for free tickets at www.nyuad-artscenter.org.