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Yale Math Man Jazzes up Jackson For Birdland: Interview

Pianist Vijay Iyer in New York. Iyer graduated from Yale University with a combined major in math and physics. Photographer: Jimmy Katz/Fully Altered Media via Bloomberg
Pianist Vijay Iyer in New York. Iyer graduated from Yale University with a combined major in math and physics. Photographer: Jimmy Katz/Fully Altered Media via Bloomberg

April 10 (Bloomberg) -- Vijay Iyer could have spent his life delving into the mysteries of quantum mechanics after graduating from Yale University with a combined major in math and physics.

While earning a Ph.D. in the cognitive science of music from University of California, Berkeley, however, Iyer felt a stronger tug toward the musician’s life.

So instead pursuing mathematics or music theory, he’s adding Michael Jackson to his modern jazz repertoire.

He began playing violin and piano at age three, long before learning about physics and the musings of Isaac Newton.

“I thought science would be my career, but I was playing music all the time,” said the silky-voiced Iyer, 40, by telephone from his Manhattan home. Music “is not something that happens in the abstract, in space. It’s something that is done for other people.”

Iyer’s adventurous trio takes the stage at Manhattan’s Birdland jazz club beginning tonight.

For the five-night stand the group, which includes drummer Marcus Gilmore and bassist Stephan Crump, will play tunes from “Accelerando” (ACT Music + Vision), Iyer’s 16th album.

Jackson Fan

While rooted in jazz, his music borrows from pop, African music, spoken word and orchestral settings. He excels at edgy remakes of standards and classics from outside the jazz sphere.

“Historicity,” his daring 2009 release, recast a Stevie Wonder tune and “Somewhere,” the Leonard Bernstein-Stephen Sondheim masterpiece from “West Side Story,” and was nominated for a Grammy Award. DownBeat magazine’s international critics poll also gave it its top ranking.

“The main thing about acclaim is that it opens doors,” said Iyer, who also teaches at the Manhattan School of Music and New York University.

“Accelerando” includes Jackson’s 1983 hit, “Human Nature.” Iyer, a Jackson fan since he was a teen, first recorded a solo version of the song two years ago.

“We were sort of messing around with it at a gig in Kansas City, and that night Marcus said, ‘Yes, we can play this,’” Iyer recalled. “We all share a deep reverence for Jackson.”

Other tunes from the CD include a clever twist on jazz saxophonist Henry Threadgill’s “Little Pocket Size Demons” and “The Star of the Story,” originally recorded by the 1970s funk-disco group Heatwave.

Jazz Ensemble

The son of Indian immigrants, Iyer attended Fairport High School near Rochester, New York (also Philip Seymour Hoffman’s alma mater) and played in the school’s jazz ensemble.

While writing his doctoral thesis, he performed at jazz clubs in the San Francisco Bay area. He released his first album, “Memorophilia,” in 1995 and began touring with saxophonist Steve Coleman.

After moving to New York in 1998, Iyer took low-paying gigs in small clubs such as the Knitting Factory, where an idol of his, the composer and arranger Muhal Richard Abrams, paid him a visit in the club’s dingy basement, the Alter Knit.

“I told him that I’m sorry he had to come to a place like this, and Muhal says, ‘Well, just play your way out of here,’” Iyer remembered. “That was good advice.”

(The Vijay Iyer Trio performs tonight through Saturday at Birdland, 315 W. 44th St.; shows at 8:30 p.m. and 11 p.m. Information: +1-212-581-3080;

(Patrick Cole is a writer for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. Any opinions expressed are his own.)

Today's highlights: Amanda Gordon's Scene Last Night featuring Dimons, Victor Cruz; Krista Giovacco meets bankers setting up a new wine trust; Martin Gayford reviews U.K. design; Craig Seligman on Nadine Gordimer's “No Time Like the Present.”

To contact the writer on this story: Patrick Cole in New York at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Manuela Hoelterhoff in New York at

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