Vijay Iyer is not your grandma’s jazz star.
One of this year’s 24 MacArthur geniuses, Iyer is both a self-taught pianist and the son of Indian immigrants. In his first career, he was an academic, a Berkeley Ph.D studying cognitive science and music.
Today, he’s a celebrated performer with fixations that speak to his background, from life for American veterans of color (the subject of his latest record, Holding It Down), to the overlap of jazz and Indian music.
The MacArthur prize of $625,000 will be doled out to Iyer in installments over five years. It's fair to say the cash infusion means that jazz, that most American art form, will continue to shift in his hands.
"There’s a certain freedom to take more risks and make more projects that I believe in,” Iyer tells HuffPost.
His projects often involve artists trained in classical Indian forms. The two main traditions, Carnatic and Hindustani music, are little known in the U.S. outside of immigrant enclaves. But Iyer says the massive reach of Bollywood means they're still heard.
"When people talk about a Bollywood flavor, they may not know what exactly they mean by that. But a lot of the details of [Indian] film music come from Indian classical music, the way melodies are constructed, all the ornamentation, the phrasing, how it’s connected to the drone pitch," he explains. "In the early days of film music, you would hear Carnatic and Hindustani musicians expound all the time."
Iyer points to the “ongoing dialogue for several decades” between jazz artists and those trained in Hindustani music, a North Indian form also characterized by long, spontaneous riffs. “John Coltrane named his son after Ravi Shankar. Those are two of the central figures in those two traditions," he notes. "That says a lot right there, that they’re listening to each other, and there’s a sort of creative compatibility.”
Though Hindustani music predates jazz by centuries, stemming to the Mughal courts of medieval north India, Iyer believes links between musical traditions operate on a primal level. When a jazz pianist hears a Hindustani vocalist expound on a raga, for example, there's a "communicative link that happens," he says.
And his background in cognitive science informs his understanding of music and connectivity. "There are theories now about the neural pathways of empathy," he says. "It's about, how do we listen? We recognize, 'that person could be me.'”
The power of music to connect is one of the reasons Iyer, who will join the music faculty at Harvard University next January, is such a fan of collaborating. Working with others encourages him to push past "the brink of what I know," he says.
If his collaborators follow suit, jazz may never be the same. "Bollywood and bhangra," he says, referring to the Punjabi dancehall music, "that stuff is always in my ear."
Editor's Note: A previous headline on this story referred to Iyer as "America's greatest living jazz pianist." Iyer is a genius and a more talented pianist than most will ever be, but he's also modest and objects to that label. We've updated the headline out of respect to him and other musical greats.