Convened by Iyer, diverse artists converge at Harvard

Wadada Leo Smith (left) and Vijay Iyer.
Wadada Leo Smith (left) and Vijay Iyer. John Rogers/ECM Records

It’s no accident that two of the most highly anticipated local performances during Jazz Appreciation Month in April are not being billed not as jazz, but rather “creative music.”

“I think we have to at least accept that as long as there’s been this word floating around, there’s also been intense critical examination of it from African-Americans,” says Vijay Iyer, a pianist and composer, Harvard professor, and Jazz Artist of the Year in the 2015 Down Beat magazine critics’ poll. He names Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and Abbey Lincoln as historical figures who resisted the term jazz. “That’s basically the spirit in which most of my colleagues and I work.”


A generous sampling of Iyer’s colleagues will join him in Cambridge on Thursday and Friday for the 2016 Fromm Concerts at Harvard, “Creative Music Convergences.” Iyer will open the event on Thursday in a duo with trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith, sharing a bill with the Chicago trio of flutist Nicole Mitchell, cellist Tomeka Reid, and drummer Mike Reed.

“I wanted to present a spectrum of what’s happening today,” Iyer explains of his curatorial choices. “I wanted to make sure it was representative across generations and across different ethnicities and so forth. Also, that it’s basically the best music that I know about that’s happening right now.”

To illustrate, he offers thumbnail descriptions. “Craig Taborn: a total master, one of the greatest pianists ever, in my opinion. Wadada Leo Smith, a wise and brilliant visionary artist — I’ve been fortunate to collaborate with him, but it isn’t just about me collaborating with him; he’s also doing a project with [laptop percussionist] Ikue Mori. Okkyung Lee, a visionary cellist, sound artist — basically she reinvents the instrument every time she plays it. Steve Lehman, on the cutting edge of creative music, jazz, working with compositional languages from a lot of different sources, including French spectralists, is very informed by hip-hop and electronic music. Tyshawn Sorey, brilliant composer, performer — this is one of the first major performances of this double trio of his.”


Iyer breaks off his recitation to point out that Lehman, Sorey, and another of his featured artists, pianist Courtney Bryan, are products of Columbia University’s doctoral program in music composition. “They all have composerly orientation that’s informed by a lot of different systems of music-making,” he notes. “They all have very rigorous materials that they’re working with, and they’re all truly exceptional performers, too. So that puts them in a rare and special and kind of new category, because they’re radical improvisers and really grounded composers, too.”

These dual qualities also apply to Smith, whose large-scale composition “Ten Freedom Summers” was a finalist for the 2013 Pulitzer Prize in music, and to Iyer himself, as evidenced by their just-released album, “a cosmic rhythm with each stroke.” The two premiered the seven-part suite of that name last week, wrapping up Iyer’s residency at the Met Breuer Museum in New York. But they’ve known each other for years.

Smith mentions getting together on trips to the Bay Area when Iyer was pursuing his Ph.D. at the University of California at Berkeley and Smith was teaching at Cal Arts. He later hired Iyer for the second iteration of his Golden Quartet.

“I look for what they can do, what kind of mentality they have about this art,” Smith says of his approach to choosing collaborators. “It’s a rigorous process of trying to discover the best possible person to be in an ensemble.”


He recalls what attracted him to Iyer as a pianist: “He played the complete range. His hands were large enough to play chords that I would write, which have five or six pitches and cover more than an octave or two. He could play lyrical, he could play all kinds of energetic, jagged stuff. And he also could play anything anybody else thought that he could play.”

Iyer was contemplating a duo recording with his old boss already when the Met Breuer commissioned him to compose music honoring Indian visual artist Nasreen Mohamedi. He decided the two projects could be combined, and introduced Smith to Mohamedi’s abstract minimalism. “It gave us something to relate to besides each other,” Iyer says, “which is a good way to create.”

The suite was created live in the studio, a mix of both written and spontaneous composition. “We both prepared compositional materials individually, and then we merged them in the studio,” Iyer explains. “So we created the music in real time from all these materials we had assembled individually and consulted with each other about, but we wanted to really highlight the moment of music-making. When you listen to the album, you hear things unfolding in a certain way that can’t have all been done on the spot. Or could they? It actually kind of confounded us, even, the way that things resolve themselves.”


Whatever they draw from the suite on Thursday will involve similarly in-the-moment music-making. It won’t replicate what’s on the album, nor should it.

“I think it’s the case with the entire history of creative music that it has elements that are fixed and elements that are unfixed or variable,” Iyer says. “Something about this project is necessarily unfixed. It needs to remain in motion — it needs to be different every time.”

Creative Music Convergences

Fromm Players Concerts at Harvard, curated by Vijay Iyer. At Paine Hall, Cambridge, April 7 and 8. Free admission. 617-495-2791, www.frommfoundation.fas.harvard.edu

Bill Beuttler can be reached at bill@billbeuttler.com.