06 October 2013

Selling Vijay Iyer

Iyer is feeling the blogospheric heat after receiving a MacArthur "Genius" award, and while no one could possibly claim to be surprised by his selection (frankly, that should include himself), I have to confess that it indeed disappoints me in that Regina Carter sort of way. Kurt Rosenwinkel's scathing evaluation of Iyer's playing ("No touch, no tone, no melody, nothing exceptional in any way") is a bit too harsh; I would simply say that for Iyer, the piano is a noise-maker, a keyboard that he plays like a drum set. It's an eminently valid approach to music-making, but a strange choice of instrument for the purpose, and as a result, his music has always struck me as tone-deaf in a not-so-constructive way. I've been over this with friends and in the end we have had to agree to disagree. Some people sincerely dig it in direct proportion to the hype; for better or worse, I am not one of them.

As for whether Iyer is a "genius," I'm open to both earnest and cynical interpretations to that effect, both entirely unrelated to his piano playing. Even so, Rosenwinkel's larger point that Iyer's success "reflects a snowball effect of the power of the critics and the industry to select their darling and push that person to the Nth degree" deserves to be taken seriously. In this case, though, Kurt could actually have gone further: Iyer is nothing less than this industry's perfect storm, neither white nor black, and a loudly self-proclaimed autodidact who nonetheless holds a PhD from a world-renowned university. Under those circumstances, someone would actually have to have it out for him just to stop all the accolades from pouring in; indeed, he himself had to walk back the Huffington Post after a headline lauding him as "America's Greatest Living Jazz Pianist" appeared in the wake of his MacArthur. Not that anyone's feeling sorry for him right now, but his fitness for visibility is clearly a burden on as well as a vehicle for his music. Most of us are still working towards our breakthrough, and one hopes none of this gets in his way.

Catch my references and read the whole story here and here.

For a work of proto-genius, check out the track "Habeas Corpus" on the record "Blood Sutra."

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