10 Things to Know about Vijay Iyer

Vijay Iyer might be the most interesting man in the world. He’s a pianist, a composer, a bandleader, a writer, and a Harvard professor—but that just scratches the surface of this multidisciplinary talent. Before the Vijay Iyer Sextet heads to DACAMERA on Feb. 29, discover a little bit about the incredible Mr. Iyer below.

  1. Iyer is the son of Tamil Indian immigrants who was born in Albany and raised in upstate New York.
  1. Though he taught himself piano as a young child, throughout his youth he principally played the violin, with his classical training on the instrument beginning at the age of 3.
  1. As a teenager, Iyer played keyboards in a band that covered the Police and Prince. He auditioned for his high school’s jazz ensemble but was assigned the vibraphone because they already had a piano player.
  1. He attended Yale, receiving his undergraduate degree in mathematics and physics before heading to the University of California, Berkeley. He originally intended to pursue a doctorate in physics but, drawn to his musical studies as well, ended up receiving an interdisciplinary Ph.D. in the cognitive science of music. His dissertation’s title is “Microstructures of Feel, Macrostructures of Sound: Embodied Cognition in West African and African-American Musics.”
  1. Since 2014 Iyer has held a lifetime appointment as the Franklin D. and Florence Rosenblatt Professor of the Arts at Harvard University, with a joint affiliation with the Department of Music and the Department of African and African American Studies.
  1. Iyer has released 23 albums since 1995, spanning a huge variety of genres and sounds. The most recent is The Transitory Poems, a recording of his live two-piano improvisation alongside Craig Taborn. His most recent album with the Vijay Iyer Sextet, Far From Over, was released in 2017 to wide critical acclaim. It was named among the best jazz albums of the year in the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Boston Globe, Slate, and The New York Times, and the only jazz release in Rolling Stone’s list of the 50 best records of the year.
  1. In 2013 Iyer was awarded a MacArthur “Genius” Grant. This followed an astonishing year of awards in which he received a 2012 Doris Duke Performing Artist Award, the 2012 Greenfield Prize for Music, and an unprecedented “triple crown” in the 2012 DownBeat International Jazz Critics Poll: Artist of the Year, Pianist of the Year, Small Group of the Year (for the Vijay Iyer Trio), Album of the Year (for Accelerando), and Rising Star Composer of the Year.
  1. Iyer’s creative partners and collaborators include dramatist, novelist and poet Amiri Baraka; saxophonists Steve Coleman, Robert Stewart, and Roscoe Mitchell; trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith; hip-hop act Dead Prez; jazz pianist, organist, vocalist, and composer Amina Claudine Myers; cornetist Butch Morris; electronic performer, installation artist, and trombone player George E. Lewis; Alto saxophonist and composer Steve Lehman, experimental sound artists Miya Masaoka; percussionist Trichy Sankaran; composer/ vocal performer and media artist Pamela Z; improvisational band Burnt Sugar; Asian Underground genre pioneer Karsh Kale; composer and multi-instrumentalist Tyshawn Sorey; jazz saxophonist, flutist, composer, poet, and visual artist Oliver Lake; electronic and experimental hip hop musician and producer DJ Spooky; alternative hip hop group Das Racist; and wind quintet Imani Winds, among others.
  1. Iyer collaborated with poet/producer/performer Mike Ladd to create a trio of political commentary albums about post-9/11 American Life: “In What Language?” (2004) about airports, fear, and surveillance before and after 9/11; “Still Life with Commentator,” a satirical oratorio about 24-hour news culture in a time of war; and “Holding It Down: The Veterans’ Dreams Project,” based on the dreams of veterans of color from America’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
  1. Iyer’s writing has been published in Journal of Consciousness Studies, Wire, Music Perception, JazzTimes, Journal of the Society for American Music and The Oxford Handbook of Critical Improvisation Studies, among others.

The Vijay Iyer Sextet—Vijay Iyer, piano; Graham Haynes, cornet, flugelhorn, electronics; Steve Lehman, alto saxophone; Mark Shim, tenor saxophone; Stephan Crump, double bass; Jeremy Dutton, drums—performs Feb. 29 at 8 p.m. at Wortham Theater Center. Tickets start at $37.50 and are available on the DACAMERA website.