Vijay Iyer: Hybrid Sensibility

Vijay Iyer’s music might have some rigorous concepts behind it, but the end goal is always a direct and visceral engagement with the audience. Read more…

Written By

Trevor Hunter

Vijay Iyer in convedrsation with Trevor Hunter
February 11, 2010—1:30 p.m.
Video and audio recorded by John McGill
Video presentation by Molly Sheridan

To the surprise of most of us who are highly suspicious of such labels, Vijay Iyer’s years of being anointed “the next big thing” in jazz have actually led to him becoming a “big thing.” His latest album Historicity topped many year-end best-of lists, and his various projects are garnering increasing amounts of attention. It certainly doesn’t hurt that Iyer is a gifted communicator whose writings on his own music as well as the music of luminaries such as Andrew Hill and Thelonious Monk have appeared in many publications.

All of this activity has generated numerous interviews and features, few of which fail to mention his extra-musical pedigree (a master’s degree in physics from Yale and a degree in interdisciplinary studies from Berkeley) or his remarkable autodidacticism when it comes to the piano. And Iyer is definitely a smart guy, whose research on music cognition has been published in the Journal of Consciousness Studies, for example. But it’s worth noting that for all of Iyer’s musical cerebrations, his often-attained goal is a simple engagement with the fundamental properties of the embodied experience. That is to say, his in-depth studies in music, cognition, and different musical cultures are tools to understand how to make music feel good, so that he can do it with greater efficacy. It seems to be working.

Although NewMusicBox has previously included Iyer as part of our 2004 cover on artists taking politcal action, there was clearly much left to be discussed with someone whose musical activities range so widely. Armed with a few pages of questions and a camera, we sat down with Iyer to probe more deeply into what exactly makes his music work. Despite the fact that we spent more than an hour and a half talking, there is undoubtedly more to cover still. Nonetheless, what we learned along the way was quite simply fascinating.

-Trevor Hunter

Trevor Hunter: I notice you have George Lewis’s book on the AACM, and Lewis is actually a good place to start with you, since he was a participant on your first record, Memorophilia. I remember in the introduction of his book he notes the schism in the documentation process between anecdote and historicity, which is of course also the title of your newest album. Your new album is a direct, deliberate way of engaging with the concept of historicity, but as you yourself write, it’s a process that occurs whether you’re conscious of it or not. It’s been 15 years since that first album, so I’m wondering if you’re in a position to describe your journey in those terms. Not only how you viewed your role in the stream at the time, but how you now see yourself as having fit in.

Vijay Iyer: That first album was released when I was 23 and had only just recently decided to make music my life. In a way that album was kind of a coming out party of sorts. Obviously you never know what’s going to happen, but I really felt like that was possibly the only chance I would ever have to leave any kind of imprint on the world as an artist. So I think in a way it had a sort of naïve grandeur to it, really trying to cover everything in one breath.

And there was also a lot that I felt needed to be set forward all at once in terms of what I was interested in artistically—and also just the fact of my existence, of somebody like me doing music like this. Which itself was, especially at that time in 1995, a brand new thing. There are historical reasons for that, as I’ve probably said elsewhere. I’m part of the first wave of Indian-Americans born in this country. We were kind of the first generation of people coming of age from that community who grew up here and who had that sort of hybrid sensibility—whatever that means, I mean, that can mean so many things.

For me, in the beginning certainly, music making was a way of expressing or coming to terms with that hybridity. Not just, “this is me as an artist,” but, “this is the beginning of this massive dissertation on what it means to be Indian-American in 1995.” So there was that component to it, which I feel over the years of having now been a part of thirteen albums as a leader or co-leader, composer, bandleader, performer of my own music, that has sort of been sketched out enough. I hope that at least really I can be heard on my own terms, whatever those are. And those keep changing too.

What else is happening in the meantime is a lot of incredible collaborations with people at length and in-depth that have opened my ears and opened my musical outlook in many ways, just by learning how to harmonize with somebody else, or groove with somebody else, both literally and figuratively. Everything that gives you as an experience has made me what I am now. So that’s the beginning of an answer to your question. It’s hard to encapsulate a decade and a half in those terms.

TH: From the beginning I think that a lot of the success you’ve had in your career so far partly is because of your success as a communicator. Not only in the music, but outside of the music—in your liner notes and your writings, etc. I don’t think it seems like you think the context and explication you give the music is necessary for understanding it, but I do get the sense that you believe it adds another level of appreciation.

VI: That depends on what context I’m speaking in, I think. But if you’re talking about liner notes, I just offer them to whoever wants to read them. Lots of people say: “To hell with liner notes! Who does this artist think he is, addressing us?” Which I think is funny, because that’s what the music is doing anyway. Personally, I cherish any discourse from any artist. We don’t often get the opportunity to have our perspectives on our own work heard or acknowledged or given any kind of permanent quality.

I also appreciate that music is something that circulates in ways that I have no control over, and don’t wish to control. Part of what it means to be a musician is that you basically set your work free in the world—not literally free, but you can’t really control that either. But you have to be willing to accept any reading, any interpretation of your work because that is what it means to put it out into the world. And I don’t really try to set forth interpretations of my work. I just try to frame it, in case anyone wants to know why I did this: here’s why, or what it means to me, here’s one articulation of what it might mean to me. Some people want to know that and some don’t. I know that I, 20 years from now, will want to know why I made that album. So at the very least it’s a message to my future self, and to whoever else cares to read it.

TH: But as innocuous as those reasons might sound, the practice still draws you criticism. I’m thinking of the first All About Jazz review of Historicity, which opened up with a bizarre attack on the concept of your liner notes—

VI: Basically almost the concept of me, which I thought was—

TH: It certainly was strange for the people who work for this publication, since we’re all about nerdy explanations, but it actually reminds me of another thing that was in George Lewis’s book about the schism regarding the complexity of discourse used to critically describe music.

VI: I used to just out and out say that critics don’t know what they’re talking about, but I’ve come to appreciate how interdependent we are. They don’t have to know what they’re talking about, they just have to be communicators in their own rights, and have an authentic response that they can then communicate. If it’s an authentic response, that’s great. But when hostility creeps in, that’s about something else that’s not fair to the reader. But for the most part I welcome all and any interpretations and responses, and obviously for the most part I’ve been blessed with very many favorable reviews. So I’m not here to issue some condemnation of jazz criticism, because certainly that critical success has opened doors for me.

But at the same time, I like to see musicians talking about their music. And I like to also see non-“experts” talking about the music who are good writers and who can actually represent their experiences well. And that to me is often more interesting than a self-appointed expert talking about the music.

Basically I’d like to just see more written engagement with music than I see. There’s a lot of blogging by self-appointed experts and a lot of criticism at that level, and there are plenty of real experts who write very knowledgeably about the music; but this music isn’t for experts. Certainly experts can appreciate it, just like experts can appreciate red wines of different kinds, but red wine tastes good and it makes you feel good, and anybody can experience that. So I’m interested in expanding the discourse and making it seem okay for people who don’t have that expert sensibility to engage with it, because I’m more interested in how the music circulates outside of that community—and not just my music, but music in general.

TH: I want to dive into some specifics of your own music. Let’s start with harmony. Since you have a graduate degree in physics, it’s not terribly surprising to me to hear you previously say elsewhere that you think of harmony spectrally. First off, so as not to leave anyone in the dust on this, would you describe what that means, and how you would use those concepts to create music?

VI: Spectral harmony is a term that’s applied to something that in a way already exists, which is an understanding of harmony that’s based on the harmonic series and the physics of sound. It’s been said by others that the history of Western harmony is kind of a gradual march up the harmonic series, starting with say Haydn, which barely even has any dominant chords, and then Mozart which starts to introduce secondary dominants and seventh chords, and so on. So it’s sort of like there’s this vision of Western harmony as a teleological march upwards into enlightenment, which is I think a little bit problematic.

I think really the thing is that the harmonic language that came out of African-American improvised music—jazz and everything connected to that, blues too—begins with a pretty profound awareness of that. It begins with 7ths and 9ths as stable entities; as stable parts of the I chord. And when you look at stuff that Monk did—or even pre-Monk, Coleman Hawkins in the ’20s, dealing with these whole tone collections that were actually ways of dealing with dominant chords, you heard the 11th partial, you heard the 13th partial, and you heard them on some level as consonant.

There’s this legendary Lester Bowie recording where he says “What is jazz?”, and he plays his trumpet solo, and at the end he says “that depends on what you know.” And I think when you look at so-called jazz harmony, what’s in versus out really depends on what you know. I think there’s a strange way that some of the fundamentals get taught that bypasses this basic sense of how sound works. And to me, harmony has to be [taught that way]. When you’re sounding tones together, you always have that continuity between harmony and timbre. And that’s just how it works.

TH: But what’s interesting about thinking of harmony that way is that you’re using a piano, an equal tempered instrument. And once you get to that 7th or 11th partial, you’re in a completely different logarithmic world instead of a ratio-based world. And certainly Steve Lehman, your co-leader in Fieldwork and another jazz musician very interested in spectral harmony, eschewed the piano completely with his octet in order to have the microtonal freedom he needed to achieve that sense of harmony. And with the orchestral piece you wrote for the American Composers Orchestra, I definitely heard some quarter tones.

VI: Oh yeah, two inter-penetrating spectral series form the backbone of that piece. I don’t know that I can say that I was using [Spectralist] techniques, because it’s not like I studied their techniques—I just studied the fundamentals of sound. But also, I didn’t go any deeper than quartertones, because when you have two rehearsals that are 40 minutes apiece, and you have to put together a 15-minute piece, you can’t really go much deeper than that. And even then it was a bit blurry. Not everybody agreed on what F quarter-sharp would sound like. So you had sort of a smear going on, which I remember [conductor] Dennis Russell Davies saying, “I hope that’s what you were going for, because that’s what it’s going to be.” [laughs]

Equal temperament is a synonym for compromise; I think we can all agree. But you know, when you listen to the tradition of blues pianists, when you listen to Monk, when you listen to Bud Powell, Randy Weston, and Andrew Hill, they’re working with those compromises but still developing something very specific and rich and physical with harmony. No one can tell me that just because they had computers at IRCAM that their solution was better than Monk’s. It’s actually the same problem that’s being handled two different ways, and I think that the way someone like Monk handles it is by taking slices of a chord that evoke very specific angles of the [harmonic] series, you could say. It brings out a certain facet of the possible resonances. And you know, that level of specificity, he spent years perfecting. It was very directed and very studied—and it felt good, and that’s sort of what it was about. It’s about resonance at that level of physical engagement and physical experience.

TH: Have you tried any of your own solutions to this problem, like retuning or preparing the piano?

VI: What I end up doing is not using many thirds, because the thirds are all wrong. Everything else is cool—well not really. Sometimes you can evoke something triad-like without having a third in it through the accumulation of resonances. It’s a little—well I don’t know if I’m ready to give my tricks away [laughs], but I guess that’s one solution. I’ve worked in contexts where I had to play non-equal tempered keyboard instruments. And those have been in some ways just hilarious because it completely undoes everything you thought you knew about the piano, because resonances don’t work the same way all of a sudden; suddenly certain combinations that you’d always sworn by sound utterly wrong. And others are revelations.

I did a couple of things with Amir ElSaffar, the Iraqi-American trumpet player and composer, and we re-tuned a few of the notes. The hardest thing I think was, just because he wanted the variety, we didn’t do everything consistently throughout all of the octaves, so when you lose octave equivalence that’s one of the weirdest things on the piano, partly because of how that affects the timbre in ways that I didn’t expect. So you come to realize how interdependent all of the keys are.

So maybe I’m just a little lazy about this [laughs], but I find I like to see what I can do just by dealing with the instrument as it is. But you know, it’s a goal of mine, particularly in terms of engaging more deeply with Indian melodic traditions from Carnatic and Hindustani traditions, and trying to get that level of flexibility and nuance and resonance. So, we’ll see. Someday.

TH: Speaking of Carnatic and Hindustani elements, certainly something your music shares with those traditions is a certain rigor with regard to rhythm. During your interdisciplinary studies at Berkeley, your thesis concentrated on rhythmic aspects specifically. And you use a term in your research that you call “microtiming.” I see that you’ve written about this for the Journal of Consciousness Studies, but I’ve seen less about it in more popular music publications. So it would be great if you could describe your work in these areas for our readers.

VI: Sure. The thrust of that academic work is actually a little deeper—and a little less deep, at the same time. It’s basically dealing with the role of our bodies in music perception and cognition, and that’s grounded in a relatively recent paradigm for cognitive science, which treats the body as one with the mind. In the past there’s been this dualist understanding of the mind versus the body, as if the mind is somehow a thing that’s not of the body, which gave rise to a whole understanding of mental processes as context independent and also independent of medium. So then there was this idea that computation like what you do on your computer is at some level equivalent to the kinds of processes that happen in the brain, and the brain is just one of many such possible machines that do those things. So this vision of body cognition, this paradigm that emerged about 20 years ago, is basically a critique of that. It sets forward the idea that actually what we call cognition emerges from embodied experience, and mental processes and mental structures are only possible and only exist because of how they emerge from our embodied experience in the world.

Here’s an experiment: you take a sheet of glass that’s lit from below so that you don’t have any reflections from above, and you put it over what seems like a cliff, on a small scale. And you let a baby crawl over it, and what do they do? Well, it depends on their level of cognition. If they think that there’s a precipice there, then they won’t proceed. But they only know such things if they’ve had experience. So babies that have been crawling around for longer have that experience of not wanting to, say, fall down the stairs. Sometimes that comes from a painful lived experience. Other times it comes from more subtle, everyday experiences. But there is a clear cognitive moment at which a baby knows not to do this.

So that’s basically what it is. It’s about this sensory motor loop, as it’s called: the connection between what you perceive and what you do that is what we call embodied and situated cognition. So I tried to bring this view of cognition to the realm of music, because there’s a field called music perception and cognition. In the past, it’s dealt with pitch perception, timbre perception—and actually this whole spectral harmony thing is connected to that whole history of music perception research. And what’s funny is that historically, the way that music was viewed in that academic community was often reminiscent of Cartesian dualism: that music was seen as something that happens in the realm of abstraction that’s not connected to action; that it’s something we perceive passively, and that doesn’t involve any physical engagement. Which is basically a Eurocentric and classical view of music as the abstract play of forms in hypothetical pitch-space, or something like that.

And that to me was so in conflict with my entire lived experience with music, so I wanted to bring in some other perspective on it as a sort of supplement to what was there. So in a way, focusing on embodied cognition meant focusing on rhythm. When you look at what’s happening in the brain when you perceive rhythm, the same areas light up that are involved in motor planning, meaning motion. The way it’s encapsulated often is, “a perceived rhythm is an imagined movement.” Your brain thinks that it’s moving when it’s hearing music. So that’s an interesting and really fundamental finding about the role of rhythm in our experience of music, and its primacy—the connection between rhythm and motion, to me, that’s the first thing that music is. So that’s what led me to focus on rhythm in that academic work.

To get back to your question on what is microtiming: it’s the difference between what one would call robotic rhythm, and what one would call human rhythm. What it means to groove is not necessarily mathematically precise equidistant beats, but clearly working with music that doesn’t have the classic notion of expressive timing that we have in western music, where you have ritardandi and the tempo ebbs and flows—expressive timing in western music is about modulation of tempo essentially, and there’s a unified way in which everybody in an ensemble is doing that. Now when you have something groove-based the sense of tempo doesn’t change, but there’s still a universe of rhythmic expression that’s possible within that context. And what is it? Well, that’s what we call microtiming. It’s your relationship to a pulse, in the most basic sense. First of all, what is the beat? How is it constructed? Where does it come from? When we hear an Afro-Cuban rumba ensemble playing, where is the beat? Who has it? Somehow everybody feels it, yet no one is playing it. It’s the emergent property of the ensemble. And not only is no one playing it, but people are playing all around it, on both sides of it. If you were to look metronomically at what’s happening, there would be a stable tempo, but you’d see attacks on either side of whatever this fictional pulse is. So the studies on microtiming were about trying to examine that. It’s very difficult, because it’s sort of this ineffable quality, and some would say that we murder to dissect [laughs]. It’s touchy, you know, some people don’t want to talk about it. And the vocabulary to talk about it is quite impoverished. But there’s a lot to learn from that.

TH: It seems like there’s an aspect of this in some of your compositional conceits as well—I’m thinking specifically about your cover of Mystic Brew. You wrote about your use of the Fibonacci sequence for the piece in The Guardian. In itself it isn’t that novel a concept; Bartók did it and so did Tool—

VI: Yeah, it’s such a tried and true technique in a way, the fact that I use it is almost barely worth talking about [laughs].

TH: Oh, I disagree with that. The way you employed it is notably different than Bartók and Danny Carey because of the way that you’re using it as a very subtle way of dividing the measure, rather than as a sequence of accents or as a melodic contour. It’s very reminiscent of your work with rhythm cognition—you have the robotic method of increasing subdividing the same musical space, but, as you’ve written, even this process maintains a natural groove to it. It seems like a systemization of the natural phenomenon that you’ve been studying.

VI: It’s hard to know which came first in this case. There was this idea that maybe successive notions of long and short beats that were increasingly detailed but maintained a certain sort of macroscopic profile—even as their innards transformed a little bit—would somehow maintain that bounce that you hear. But honestly it wouldn’t have made it on the record if it didn’t feel the way it did. I liked it enough, and not only did I like it but the drummer liked it, all his roommates liked it. And I was like, well, it’s not that I’m just doing this to be liked, but there’s something here. But I would say that I’ve been fooling with those kinds of ideas and those kinds of structures for a while, I mean dating back to my first album actually.

TH: You have these rhythmic structures that permeate your music, but it’s of note that they’re not often all that jarring or angular. There are obviously a lot of counterexamples to that too, such as your three albums with Fieldwork; but on the whole the aspect of groove seems central to any rhythmic conceits you bring out in your music.

VI: That’s fair enough. Basically it has been the area that I’ve been exploring for a while. That’s not to say that I don’t explore other areas, but things have coalesced around that and particularly in the groups under my name. So we try to build from within something that is cycling and is stable and can be expanded in intensity, texture, density, and counterpoint, but not necessarily in duration itself.

But that’s not entirely true, because if you listen to the end of “Historicity” or the ending of “Helix,” those two pieces from the latest album, there are these experiments with cyclical tempo modulation. It’s basically the tempo equivalent of Shepard tones. You’re accelerating, but you’re also removing levels of subdivision as you accelerate, so then you’re kind of back where you started. If over nine bars you go to triple tempo, but you remove the subdivisions of each pulse so then suddenly you’re back at nine; or if over four bars you decelerate to half time but you add subdivisions so that you seem to have looped around. And then there are things that are just more in a breathing kind of rhythm, or in a very contemplative and non-metered rhythm. Like the last track on that album. So I guess we’re trying to broaden our horizons in that sense.

TH: Before we leave this area, just to cover all the bases: does your work with cognitive science or physics impact your work in any other ways than the ones we’ve discussed?

VI: That’s a good question, because we’ve discussed the signature ways. I think orchestration’s another piece of the harmony-timbre puzzle. I think sometimes in those fundamental terms about just energy distribution through the sonic space, in frequency and intensity and so on. And I think just in general I’m willing to deal with things a little more rigorously than many people in this area of music are. I won’t say “the most” or “all” or anything because there are plenty of people who are much nerdier than I. For example, Miguel Zenón, have you heard his music? Lots of math. Or Ethan Iverson—it’s very formalist the way he puts his solos together, for example. But it’s funny, because they don’t get called that, neither of them. I don’t know why that is. But I think they are bigger nerds than I am. [laughs] And I am saying that in solidarity with nerds across the universe!

TH: I’m sure the press gravitates towards your academic pedigree.

VI: Well it’s partly that I suppose.

TH: Since you mention orchestration, have you ever thought about expanding into big band, beyond your usual trio or quartet?

VI: I’m working with the opportunities that I have. I’ve been talking with one of these German radio big bands, and we might manage to do a project together. It’s an amazing palette, and I’m really interested in particular in how some of the newer composers are expanding the possibility with that palette. I think John Hollenbeck is probably the best example in terms of really blowing your mind with what you think is a tried and true format. So I’m interested in working with that.

Also I’m doing the other extreme: I’m making a solo piano record in the coming months, which is terrifying to me. I already talked about collaboration as the main thing, so when you’re out there by yourself—basically, what is the dialogue that’s happening? Between you, and what? That’s the question. Basically one of things you’re doing is you’re dialoging with the history of the instrument. It’s pretty well traveled as a format; a lot of people have tried it and found a lot of possibility in there.

But Historicity was like that in a way—I mean, how do you make another trio record? A thousand people have made a million trio records—or probably more than a thousand people, unfortunately. I remember I had to do this blindfold test a couple years ago for DownBeat, and he only played me piano trio and solo music that had been issued that year, and by the end of it I was ready to shoot myself. It all blended together in a way that was just depressing, like how do you really distinguish yourself in this format? And I guess one thing that I tried to do with Historicity, which wasn’t even like, “okay we’re going to show the world how to make it,” it wasn’t at all like that. It was me like, “God, I hope this works.” But it’s almost like letting history sit in with the band and become this fourth member of the group. When you work with an established piece of music, it carries its own sort of aura that on some level exceeds anything you can say about it. It’s already said what it has to say. And people, when they listen, are working with all that historical baggage that the song carries around with it, and that’s affecting what they’re hearing. So in a way it was just about leaving space for that to happen, and letting that invisible aura become a member of the group for each of those tunes. And so that dynamic is I think even more crucial with some the solo repertoire, just sort of letting that sound. I don’t know, it remains to be seen whether I can pull this off. There’s a lot riding on it, it seems. But I’ll do my best and get back to you.

TH: So going back to this question of improvisation, and complex rhythmic and tempo structures. How do you approach that in a way that makes it work?

VI: That is the question that, by playing, we hope to answer. There’s no one answer to that question, but for me, it’s about learning to coexist with these structures, and navigate them to the point that you’re not owned by them, but that you own them. But I’m also not necessarily in displays of mastery, that’s not really music either. So sometimes I’m interested in dialoguing with structure rather than displaying mastery over a structure. So you’ll hear these more, quoting Steve Lehman quoting Boulez, “diagonal” approaches to these forms. You play across it. Not over, and not in, but across.

And I think also, because partly I’ve ever been concerned with displaying my own virtuosity—because I never really thought that I had any to display [laughs]—but it’s really been about just doing enough to let the music persist for a little while, and no longer than it needs to. It has to do with basically my relationship to the instrument, and my own path through this music, which itself has been one discovery after another. So I don’t really have any grand plan of domination or anything like that, I just want to be able to move with some amount of grace and some amount of power inside of the music.

TH: In relationship to the term jazz, and how to define it, you wrote on All About Jazz: “And that’s closest to what jazz is for me: an expressive and critical take on reality, at once tough and fragile, culturally and historically grounded yet perilously unstable, miraculously existing in the most unlikely circumstance and simply devastating in its effect on one’s worldview. The kind of musical experience I crave is the kind that makes me wonder if I even know what music is.” I like this quote, because I basically and broadly agree with it. But I’m not totally sure if it serves as a way to discuss what jazz is, because I would personally take all definitional aspects about that quote and apply them to a lot of other musics that I love.

VI: What I was doing in that article was—as I recall, it was years ago—I wasn’t trying to define jazz. And I generally try not to offer some sweeping definition of anything—certainly not as charged a term as jazz. Like you quoted, I was talking about what it is for me. And that of course is going to overlap with what other musics are for me, or for other people. And I don’t think that any definition of a field as wide as jazz should be something that excludes. When you talk about it being historically grounded, and culturally specific, that’s true of many musics, but it’s specific in a specific way, you know? It’s this specificity, and it’s this historicity. And it’s affected me in its own way over the last 25 years—and continues to. I’ve had the great good fortune of being able to affect it back on some small level, which I never dreamed possible.

But I would say that part of the reason that I’ve been able to do that is because I’ve not treated it as a closed system, but rather as a field of possibilities. I think that that has to be true of any creative endeavor, because if you treat it as a closed system, there’s only so far you can go. And I’m interested in pushing beyond what I know and connecting to things I don’t know. I don’t really work with a working definition of the music. Maybe that was more a description, a qualified and provisional description of how it works for me. And I also tried deliberately to frame it as openly as possible because that’s how it works for me.

I often find that people impose the word “jazz” in ways that are meant to limit what the music can be, and that is of no interest to me. And yet at the same time, I’m 100% indebted to the history of the music that’s called jazz, so I’m not going to betray that history or its impact on me. So it puts you in an interesting situation when its 2010, and you have this hundred-year-old music that is hotly contested and that different people want to own and define and contain, and ignore and so on, and meanwhile the music’s been chugging along on its own steam and expanding and having this huge impact on the world the entire time—all these debates notwithstanding. It’s like Monk said, you can’t make jazz do anything, and maybe it’s going to hell.

To me, what jazz is is a field. It’s an area of overlapping interests and overlapping histories. It’s not a style, actually—or if it is, it’s a huge compendium of styles. But it’s also people who didn’t care about style, and care instead about information and history and community and memory, and these kinds of things.

There’s a line from Abbey Lincoln that I quote sometimes, and I think quoted in that article: “A lot of musicians on the scene now think they’re playing jazz. But there’s no such thing, really.” Which is a very controversial thing to say or for me to quote, I’ve also found. I shouldn’t say those kinds of things, because of course it exists. But it also exists in an oppositional sense, so that when Abbey Lincoln says something like “jazz doesn’t exist,” part of what she’s saying is that it resists definition. You know, there’s the history of the music, and then there’s the word. And are those two things equal? Of course not. In particular, the word has been used to deny whole sectors of the history of the music, or to imprison whole sectors of the music, and to deny musicians the mobility that they deserve in terms of opportunities and how much they get paid, frankly. So those are some of the complexities involved in trying to define anything, and specifically this music, which has such an historical weight.