Vijay Iyer Explains What It Means to Be "Jazz Famous"

Vijay Iyer Explains What It Means to Be "Jazz Famous"
Judging by Twitter trends, the huge upset win by Esperanza Spalding in the Best New Artist category remains one of biggest stories from the Grammys. Her upset was greeted with a collective "say what?" from legions of feverish Bieber fans (and music execs) who bitterly argued she won't have a fraction of the career of their hero.

However, there was another hotly tipped Grammy nominee who, although he didn't end up winning, may represent the kind of career prospects Spalding will have on offer with her newfound fame.

Pianist Vijay Iyer was already a widely celebrated name in the world of jazz before reaching new audiences with his incredible cover of M.I.A.'s "Galang" in 2009. Drawn from his 13th album, Historicity, its momentum led to the Best Instrumental Jazz Grammy nod, which he lost to the recently deceased James Moody. But don't be too upset for Iyer. He commuted from Kalamazoo to attended the awards ceremony before catching a flight to Belgium straight away to perform more interesting music for enraptured audiences. Iyer just can't stop doing cool stuff, which is what happens when you're "jazz famous, not famous famous," as he recently told Exclaim!

Following the release of his forthcoming album Tirtha on March 8 through German label ACT Music, Iyer will be doing a little of this and that. It's all jaw-droppingly cool, and, like Justin Bieber, also in 3D -- though presented in concert halls around the world.

"I just wrote a piece for the Brentano String Quartet" Iyer says, speaking of one of the world's premier string ensembles. "What they've done is taken a bunch of unfinished fragments by the so-called great composers in Western tradition and commissioned contemporary composers to finish them, or at least respond. Somehow I got stuck with Mozart. That will be coming up this year. I also finished a big band piece for (ex-Vancouverite) Darcy James Argue, that's going to be premiered in a few weeks."

But that's not all. Iyer continues: "I've been commissioned by the Silk Road project, which is Yo Yo Ma's [Asian folk music] thing so that's something I'll be doing in the next year. I have another project in process with Mike Ladd (Infesticons); we've done these big difficult projects together."

This is Iyer's third collaboration with Ladd. "We call it 'irritainment' -- take a topic no one wants to talk about and make art out of it. It deals with young veterans from the war in Iraq, men and women in their 20s who've been fighting these wars that no one is thinking about or talking about in the U.S. They come home to public indifference, a very broken infrastructure for veterans and a dire economy with no jobs. Some unemployment figures were released last week for veterans, it's double the national average which is really just awful. So we've been collaborating with veterans."

Spalding's most recent album, the string-soaked Chamber Music Society, certainly suggests she could take on similar projects, though her forthcoming album is being produced by Q-Tip, which suggests yet another potential trajectory for her career. But she will always be "jazz famous."

Head here to read Exclaim.ca's full interview with Vijay Iyer, in which he talks about his career, his views on his experience as one of the few Indian-Americans in jazz and his wacky collab with hip-hop pranksters Das Racist.