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Initially studying physics at UC Berkeley, Iyer veered toward a musical career while living in the East Bay in the 1990s, encouraged by the area's elder statesmen and the opportunities for performing at places like Yoshi's. "A lot of factors contributed to me leaving physics, but part of it was the discovery that I could actually be an artist," he says. "I was very serious about music all along, but I didn't really know that the options were there for me to really do it. And I didn't know if I was any good. So I didn't know where I stood in the world, or anything. And I also had a lot of learning to do.
"My years in the Bay Area—'92 to '98—it was a real crucible for me. I was exposed to constant stimuli from all these different communities, and I got to work with all kinds of musicians and learn about a lot of different things. It all contributed to my growth as an artist. It's hard to say whether that could have happened anywhere else."
Fast-forward a decade, and although Iyer's 2009 album Historicity topped just about every major critic's jazz poll for that year, its universal acclaim belied the fact that Iyer had been making albums since 1995. Good press had arrived over the years, and Iyer had been a name in jazz, but with Historicity, the world at large finally stood up and took notice.
"It kind of happened at once," Iyer says. "And it's hard for me to understand why that happened. I have my theories, I guess. I think for a long time people saw my music as difficult or something. It was almost like news to people that I could play standards or that I could play other people's music. But also, the trio format has a different dynamic than some of the other formats I've recorded in."
Those other formats include a quartet and duo with saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa, a group called Fieldwork and electronic projects with the hip-hop artist Mike Ladd. Before Historicity, however, Iyer had never made a simple piano trio album, and the inclusion of compositions by artists as varied as Leonard Bernstein and Stevie Wonder to Andrew Hill and Julius Hemphill attracted a wide audience. Iyer's cover of the M.I.A. song "Galang" even garnered a rave review on Pitchfork.com, which rarely if ever pays notice to jazz recordings.
That sort of acclaim is nice, Iyer admits. But he's also cognizant that America doesn't value jazz—an art form born in this country—as much as it should.
"I love Roy Haynes, but he shouldn't have to travel as much as he does," Iyer says. "He's musical royalty. He's an American treasure. And it's beautiful that he's playing for us, but he should be able to rest, you know?
"It's just sort of a different scene here," Iyer continues. "And that's partly what gives the music its cry, that sort of struggle that it contains. But it's also a struggle, let's face it. We romanticize it, but it's not pretty."
The Vijay Iyer Trio plays with Sheila Jordan and the Roy Haynes Fountain of Youth Band on Sunday, June 10, at Rodney Strong Vineyards. 11455 Old Redwood Hwy., Healdsburg. 2pm. $35–$45. 800.838.3006.