Autoscopy: A solo piano mixtape compiled by Vijay Iyer

We’re incredibly pleased to offer this guest post by pianist and composer Vijay Iyer. He’s compiled an annotated mixtape of personally significant solo piano recordings. It showcases the stunning beauty, range, and continuity of piano jazz. For those who aren’t familiar with Vijay’s own remarkable music, a couple of samples are included in the mix (at our suggestion). For those already in the know, it’s a chance to hear his music in a new context.

THIS MIX WILL ONLY UP FOR A WEEK. You can download the entire mix and/or the individual tracks below.

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[download the entire 43-minute mix here]

Some time ago the good people here at Destination: Out invited me to sit in for a turn. Realizing how many of their readers have amassed far greater collections of wonderful and obscure recordings than I ever will, I decided that the best I could do was to select a few favorites that were pivotal in my own development as a player. So, after many months of patient prodding from our hosts, I finally pulled together this solo piano mixtape.

By request I dropped in a couple of humble pieces of my own, intended mainly to cleanse the palate as you work through these substantial offerings from my heroes. Thanks for listening.

Home Grown
Minor Music : 1985

This is early, raw, unbridled Geri Allen, a dazzling blend of complex rhythmic structures, compelling melodies, intricate polyphony, advanced and often polytonal harmonies, and polymorphous improvisational intensity. The opening moments are highly gestural, but there is still so much detail in what she’s doing, you can really hear the piece in there. It’s as though the song coalesces from these improvised careening shards.

Ms. Allen is really going for it through this whole take – she’s just ablaze with creativity. Even as we move into successive sections of the piece, the intensity never flags and the rhythm drives hard, before returning to its original molten state again at the very end.

She had such a highly developed musical vision from the moment she emerged, and was really inspirational to people in my generation. Her version of “Lonely Woman” on Etudes with Haden & Motian is a classic.

Randy Weston
Blues to Africa
Freedom : 1975

Though nobody would contest his legendary status, to me Mr. Weston is still a slightly overlooked genius of the piano. He achieves such clarity and economy with such a distinctive vocabulary – yes, reminiscent of Monk and Duke Ellington, and upholding a similar sensibility, but to me fully authentic and creative; in the flow of tradition but never derivative. Here he plays a blues of undeniable realness and power, and the simplicity and elegance of his lines make his very special harmonies all the more surprising. He plays with such utter conviction that the song requires very little embellishment as things unfold. And his touch is so refined — his subtle shadings accent the counterpoints in this casually polyphonic music.

Vijay Iyer
Blood Sutra
Artists House / Pi : 2003

This is a short solo piece I dedicated to Roscoe Mitchell, because he is the sole reason that I was ever able to play like this. Over the course of my first tour with him, nothing I played was working at all. In my desperation I somehow stumbled on this approach, and when it started happening I couldn’t believe that I was the person doing it.

Actually it was more intense than that: I experienced a moment of autoscopy — a kind of out-of-body experience where I seemed to be watching myself playing from afar. Somehow I had become, yes, a note factory.

Despite the obvious differences, for me internally it also has a lot to do with the next piece-

Sun Ra
St. Louis Blues
IAI : 1978

Sun Ra’s piano encompasses the twentieth century. This astonishing treatment of W.C. Handy’s classic 1914 blues is a whirlwind of fragmented melodies, rhythmic displacements, prismatic harmonies, and boisterous humor. I first heard this piece when I was twenty, and it was revelatory; I hadn’t thought it possible to “push” the blues format to such a degree. Whenever Sun Ra seems to go “somewhere else,” he follows a clear path there and back. It feels like he can play anything he wants, without ever abandoning the song. The piece’s buoyant, tragicomic feeling is maintained even through its most extreme moments.

This is improvisational mastery, a unity of thought and action. His playing feels fully embodied: you can hear the process in his playing, as though his hands are multidimensional feelers that sense sonic possibility as they move across the keyboard. Such prowess can only result from decades of research, study, and experimentation. Like Thelonious Monk and Cecil Taylor, Sun Ra rigorously explored that liminal space between body and instrument, displaying the kind of grace, power, and brutal beauty that you find in the martial arts.

Cecil Taylor
Garden, Volume 2
Hat Hut : 1982

This is one of Cecil Taylor’s many great, inimitable solo “ballad” pieces. There was a period in the early-mid-90s when I’d been listening to lots of him – seeing him live often and dosing myself with his recordings every morning over breakfast. This piece, from the 2-disc live Hat Hut album Garden, particularly grabbed me because it had one of the most transparent and economical forms I’d ever heard from Taylor. He plays the head twice, seemingly improvises over a version of the progression, and plays the head out.

It’s such a beautiful song. One chord he plays changed my life. It’s in the middle of the head, 1 minute in (and recurs on the repeat) – an A octave in the bass, and a B, G, B in the right hand. Andrew Hill also favored such a voicing, as in the piece “Subterfuge” on Black Fire. It’s a mysterious and spectral sound, stable and yet void, an anti-chord. When I first figured out what it was, it was like peering into the abyss.

Pemmican is a meat-derived “survival” food meant for travel, like jerky but better, supposedly. It was invented by Native Americans; Taylor has a number of Native American ancestors. There are lots of pieces in the world named after food, but of course everything is deeply symbolic for Taylor. There is plenty to read into, if you are so inclined.

Andrew Hill
Verona Rag
Soul Note : 1986

How can one piano piece contain the universe? Somehow this one does. I’ve spoken here previously about my personal relationship to Hill and his music. But this piece goes further and somehow encapsulates everything and its opposite. It is and is not a rag in the traditional sense; it has a traditional rag form, maddening repeats included, but it also spirals off at times — into fragments of other songs, into glacially paced anti-rag ruminations, into what seem like the recesses of human consciousness. It has glaring imperfections and yet also seems perfectly balanced. Its pulse careens, wobbles, and falters, but this results in a more accurate portrayal of human motion than any piano roll ever could capture. It pushes a quintessentially ragtime hemiola figure to an absurd extreme. It is simply a tour de force explosion of the idea of rag.

Hill constantly allows the two hands to slide slightly out of register, enhancing the polyphony while peeling the rhythm apart like an onion, revealing musical pulse to be a mere convenience, a collective fiction. There are times when Hill seems to be fooling with us, but then you turn a corner and glimpse certain mysteries of existence. Check out the passage starting at 8:45 where he refracts the “C” section, spinning these intoxicating lines across an insistently asymmetric sub-basement left hand, only to hit the last chord with deadpan simplicity each time.

The song ends suddenly, with a dash of elegance and humor, and it feels like the right time to make an exit. The listener has been put through the wringer. You are bewildered and have forgotten what life was like before the song started. But, as Wadada Leo Smith said in this clip:

The artist is the consciousness of society… but musicians’ role is very special. It’s a way of making an example of the perfect state of being for the observer, causing, if it’s successful, the observer to forget just for a moment that there is anywhere else existing except that moment that they’re engaged in, and to eclipse everything that was happening to them before they began that process of being the observer, or being involved in / engaged between art and music and listening… and to transform that life in just an instant, so that when they go back to the routine part of living, they carry with them a little bit of something else. (Smith, Eclipse)

Vijay Iyer
Asian Improv / Red Giant : 1998

I wouldn’t ever know how to follow Hill, but I often end my own performances with this short meditation, as a way to give thanks and to ease the listener’s transition back into that “routine part of living.”

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Our sincere thanks to Vijay Iyer for putting this wonderful compilation together. Let him know what you think in the comments, and be sure to check out more of Iyer’s music here and here.

Category Andrew Hill, Cecil Taylor, Geri Allen, guest posts, Randy Weston, Sun Ra, Vijay Iyer

10 Responses to Autoscopy: A solo piano mixtape compiled by Vijay Iyer

  1. Man! so generous…this is a *great post*. I love that Geri Allen opener, and All That Music is a spectacular multi-inflected and transcendental piece, definitely. One can only imagine what else might arise, touring with Roscoe Mitchell. anyway and all in all, just wonderful, many thanks.


  2. oops, meant That Much Music….

  3. Hello again- I recommend the 2006 Randy Weston CD, Zep Tepi, a trio with percussionist Alex Blake and bassist Neil Clarke, on Random Chance.

    Also, I wonder if Vijay has heard or seen the scores for any of Iannis Xenakis’ piano music? There are some at least superficial similarities with That Much Music. There’s an old Angel LP featuring Herma, a Xenakis solo piece with Georges Pludermacher on piano.


  4. Thanks for the posting. A mixed tape from Vijay Iyer. I look forward to hearing it. I have to just interject a brief opinion here, in case Mr. Iyer is reading the comments. Blood Sutra and Reimagining are simply two of the best modern jazz discs I know about. Quite astounding music. Thank you for many, many hours of pure bewilderment and enjoyment. I keep hoping that one of these days (soon, preferably) you will show up at Yoshis in Oakland with your quartet (or elsewhere in the bay area). Until then, thanks again.

  5. Hi Peter and everyone – Thanks for listening and for the kind words. I hope we’re not choking the Destination Out server!

    That Weston trio is a key ensemble, very important. I’ve been meaning to get that disc. As for Xenakis, I can imagine that there would be some passing similarities, though not necessarily by design — it might just be statistically inevitable! I have enjoyed Xenakis’s chamber music but haven’t studied the solo piano works in particular. But now I will. Thanks for the tips! – V.

  6. aw shucks jab, just saw your comment… thank you!

  7. I also wanted to add that the quote from Wadada Leo Smith is from this dvd. It is very nice footage of the first gig by this incarnation of Smith’s Golden Quartet, at Banlieues Bleues in Paris in spring 2005. Definitely of interest to all!

  8. excellent music here, presented in a fascinating format. please do not let this be the last guest mix-tape y’all run…

  9. thank you very much for this tape – awsome music – I’m searching the records ‘Garden’ and ‘Homegrown’ for years now, unfortunately no success. Very best regards from Hamburg/Germany Michael