Vijay Iyer arrived in the Bay Area in the summer of 1992 as a baby-faced 20-year-old who had just completed a Yale degree in math and physics.
Enrolled at UC Berkeley in a physics doctoral program, he had few notions of pursuing a career in music and no premonitions that jazz might be his calling.
These days, he's one of jazz's most celebrated pianists, with a string of lavishly praised albums, numerous critics' poll victories and a reputation as a rigorously imaginative improviser who has thoughtfully integrated concepts from some of jazz's heaviest thinkers.
Performing Friday with his acclaimed trio at Theatre on San Pedro Square as the closing act in San Jose Jazz's Winter Fest and Saturday at Kuumbwa Jazz Center, Iyer spoke at length about his formative years in the Bay Area during a recent phone conversation from his Harlem apartment.
By luck, happenstance and a willingness to throw himself into challenges he was barely equipped to meet, Iyer obtained an invaluable bandstand education unlike anything experienced by his conservatory and music program-trained peers. His good fortune started with the location of the first apartment he rented in Oakland, across Telegraph Avenue from the Bird Cage, a neighborhood bar that hosted a Sunday jam session.
"They found out I could play and had a keyboard, and I became the house pianist," said Iyer, 41. "I'd be there every Sunday, backing up singers and 30 horn players lined up to get
"It was very organic, a hangout for regular folks. I had already been playing, but actually being in the context of a community that loves this music, I learned so much."
Initially attracted to the torrentially percussive approach of avant-garde patriarch Cecil Taylor, Iyer found opportunities to play with veteran drummers E.W. Wainwright and Donald "Duck" Bailey. He soaked up the sounds at Yoshi's on Claremont Avenue, reveling in the music of Abbey Lincoln, Shirley Horn, David Murray, Nat Adderley, Joe Henderson, Anthony Braxton, Sam Rivers and particularly Steve Coleman, whom he went to see every night of a weeklong 1993 engagement.
An altoist who forged a strikingly kinetic and rhythmically encompassing approach to group improvisation in Brooklyn's M-Base Collective in the late 1980s, Coleman already had a reputation as a prescient talent scout.
Drawn to Coleman's highly flexible but dauntingly intricate musical systems, Iyer clearly impressed the saxophonist with his willingness to mix it up during a self-financed Bay Area community residency program the altoist set up in 1994. Hired for a European tour, Iyer went on to play intermittently with Coleman for six years and recorded four pivotal albums with his band, Five Elements.
"That European tour was my first experience on the world stage," Iyer said. "The people playing with him were these amazing virtuosos, and Steve gave me some pivotal opportunities to fall on my face. It really kicked my butt, and to this day, his music really inspires me."
With his physics course work completed, Iyer started having qualms about his academic path, what with his growing commitment to music and the poor employment outlook for researchers. "With jobs scarce in physics, did it make sense to be doing something really hard and impractical?" Iyer said. "Especially when I was playing more and more in the area."
Rather than drop out of Cal, the pianist found a welcoming home at the Center for New Music and Audio Technologies (CNMAT), a multidisciplinary research center run by electronic music pioneer David Wessel. With the support of Wessel and trombonist/composer George Lewis, a brilliant experimentalist then teaching at Mills College, Iyer designed his own doctoral program, leading to his 1998 thesis, "Microstructures of Feel, Macrostructures of Sound: Embodied Cognition in West African and African-American Musics."
While the academic language might be off-putting, Iyer was honing an approach grounded in jazz's rhythmic vitality. "I got pegged as cerebral," Iyer says. "Sure, I try to infuse my music with ideas and information, but it's about motion and communication. It's about the feeling of energy being harnessed by music and everybody sharing. That starts to sound very Bay Area, but that feeling is as real as anything.
"Maybe more real."