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October 13, 1999


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Gifted Indian-American Duo Finds Solace In Jazz

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Shanthi Shankarkumar in Chicago

Vijay Iyer and alto saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa For pianist Vijay Iyer and alto saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa, jazz is more than just the music. It has allowed them to find an artistic and personal identity in a world that has not always been very welcoming.

Among the handful of South Asian jazz musicians, the New York-based duo represents a new generation of American musicians that has found a creative outlet for its angst, which is really what jazz is all about.

For the two second generation Indian Americans, it has not been easy finding a niche in jazz, but their talent has cast aside all doubts and today they have gained recognition as world class composers and improvisers.

In Chicago recently as part of the World Music Festival, they teamed up with Toronto-based mrindagam maestro Trichy Shankaran and the ensuing music was to say the least, enthralling and eclectic. It reinforced the twin identities of the Iyer-Mahanthappa duo. They could play pure American jazz, without a trace of any Indian influence and they could also effortlessly seam together Western and Indian sounds, to produce what can truly be called Indian-American music.

But Iyer, 27, wants to assert that the music the two play is "American music that is personal and expressing our points of view."

"We don't want to be associated with the history of American musicians appropriating Indian music," he adds. "We are very conscious and careful of how we draw from our heritage."

The beauty of jazz is that it is an open-ended genre that allows an artist to bring his own story to the music. Iyer and Mahanthappa have exploited this, raising it to new levels, as they come to terms with being a minority in a fiercely selective club.

"Jazz has a sound to it that has a sense of urgency and a kind of cry to it," Iyer says. "We relate to this, because we know what it is to be brown in a white country. There are unconscious and subtle elements of being people of color in our music."

To 28-year-old Mahanthappa too, jazz has been an outlet for the raging emotions within him. "It ends up being almost therapeutic to play this American improvised music and integrate it with one of the oldest improvised music of the world," he explains. "I definitely feel a cultural tie with it."

The ties with jazz started early for both of them. Raised in Rochester, NY, Iyer was trained as a classical violinist but also played the piano while growing up. He went to Yale to study math and physics, and though his passion for jazz blossomed there, he went to UC Berkeley to pursue doctoral studies in physics.

After receiving his master's, Iyer says he became "kind of disillusioned with physics academia."

'I saw the musical part of my life at odds with the physics part of it,' he told the San Francisco Guardian. 'I couldn't devote enough time to either to be satisfied, and music offered me much more immediate gratification.'

He switched to an interdisciplinary graduate program he created that combines music, musicology, computer science, and cognitive science and earned a Ph D. He lived in California till 1997 and then moved to New York. He has been collaborating with Mahanthappa since 1995, performing in gigs like Desh Pardesh in Canada and the Jazz Yatra in Mumbai

Vijay Iyer 'Vijay Iyer is fast becoming both a cornerstone of the Asian-American jazz movement in the Bay Area and a composer and performer of international significance, in his own right,' said the San Francisco Chronicle Online.

Blaine Fallis in the Modern Jazz Online wrote: 'Vijay brings his own unique background to bear in the music he's making, and it's just pouring out and deserves to be heard.'

Mahanthappa, who comes from a family of scientists, started playing the saxophone in the fourth grade. Unlike Iyer, he went onto music school soon after high school. He started at the North Texas State University, which has one of the best jazz programs in the country, but transferred to the Berklee College of Music in Boston after two years.

The logical step for most musicians is to head for New York, the hub of jazz, but Mahanthappa was not ready for the Big Apple and moved to Chicago.

"I was looking for a place where the level of competition and music was lower than New York," he says. After four years of playing and teaching in Chicago, Mahanthappa was ready for New York. He plays with a quartet in New York and a quintet in Chicago. He also plays with an interesting band called the Indo-Pak Jazz Coalition which has Fareed Haque as the guitarist and, at times, Sameer Chatterjee on the tabla.

The duo has found new inspiration in each other. They complement each other and feed off each other's strengths.

"He being a saxophonist tends to draw from the melodic side of Indian music while I treat the piano as a percussion instrument," Iyer says. "We have a pretty deep connection because of our backgrounds and our similar experiences in being brown in a white society. You hear a lot of interaction and dialogue in our music."

Today, the duo with CDs to their name and numerous performances in Europe, North America and India have finally found their place in an arena teeming with talented jazz musicians. But the road to recognition came slowly because the duo refused to find short cuts to success. Success if it came, they were adamant, would come on their terms.

"The music industry doesn't know what to do with an Indian-American," Mahantappa says. "It knows what to do with an African-American and white jazz musician but an Indian-American just falls in this crack. They don't know how to market you and their first inclination is to exoticize you."

They had to deal with off-the-mark observations that their music was great because it was "Indian." But they also knew they had to be patient.

"You find people who take you for what you are and love you for what you are doing. The marketing, for them is not even an issue. You are treated as a jazz musician," Mahanthappa adds. "We all make choices about which directions to go. The people I see that are successfully quickly are the ones who are not doing anything original, they play safe. The ones who try to break new ground are the ones who will take longer to be successful and they will also be the ones who will be remembered in the end."

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