In the company of the jazz group Trio 3, pianist-composer Vijay Iyer, who is a bandleader, producer, Harvard professor and 2013 MacArthur Fellow, feels humbled.
“We were in the studio for a couple of days,” Iyer says. “We just plowed through a bunch of material over several hours. I was the one, the young blood, who was like ‘Hey, you guys want to get some lunch?’ ”
He felt like a punk for even bringing up food to these men who had forgotten lunch as they continued working, he says. Of course, the trio agreed to take a break. But in that moment, Iyer could see how serious they were about the work.
It was inspiring, he says, to be reminded that the trio prepared its music with such rigor and care.
When Iyer makes his Spoleto Festival USA debut by joining Trio 3 on Sunday at the Gaillard Center, he will have known the members of the group in some capacity for around 20 years. But the first opportunity to collaborate with the trio came in 2013 when they worked on Trio 3’s album “Wiring.”
“It was the summer of 2013, (when) George Zimmerman was acquitted (of second-degree murder in the death of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black teenager in Florida),” Iyer says. “That’s partly what prompted me to write this suite for the group that we ended up recording called 'Suite for Trayvon (And Thousands More).' "
Iyer’s familiarity with the group developed over the years as he listened to their collaborations with guest pianists whom Iyer considered heroes, friends and mentors. Collaborators included Andrew Hill, Geri Allen, Jason Moran and Irene Schweizer. And now Iyer himself.
He describes saxophonist Oliver Lake, bass player Reggie Workman and drummer Andrew Cyrille as all legends. “So, it felt like a beautiful invitation to be in that same company, and to get to match wits with these master elders who are kind of warriors from the history of this music.”
When Iyer moved to New York City in the 1990s, he met the members of Trio 3 separately before collaborating with the full group. Iyer was introduced to Workman through poet Amiri Baraka. Cyrille and Iyer became acquainted when they came together to play for Robert Pinsky, then-poet laureate of the United States.
Lake’s first encounter with Iyer came when the pianist sent one of his CDs to Lake’s record label, Passin’ Thru Records, to ask for Lake’s opinion. Once Iyer moved to New York City, the duo did a concert together and before long, Trio 3 was approaching Iyer about a collaboration.
“When Vijay came on the scene, he came on with quite a bang,” Lake says. “Vijay is an excellent improviser as well as a great composer. But primarily as an improviser, that’s what pulled us toward him.”
Cyrille emphasizes the mutual respect.
“(Iyer) is a very challenging person compositionally,” Cyrille says. “He brings something to the table that we appreciate. We want to be part of what it is that he has to offer us.”
This respect, and the hours that these four have spent together, is invaluable, Iyer said. It’s given him a deeper perspective on life, which, he noted, is the core of musical expression.
“We came to know one another as human beings,” Iyer says. “Learning how to be together; that’s sort of the unspoken framework for making music together is accepting one another’s humanity, in all its fullness and richness.”
He recalls being backstage at Birdland in New York City in 2013. He and Trio 3 were about to go on stage. Iyer had his eyes closed, thinking through some of the music they were about to play. When he opened his eyes and looked around, Workman, who was 76 at the time, was on the floor doing push-ups.
These times together, combined with the decades of jazz improvisation Trio 3 has under its belt, gives the four musicians an exceptional level of trust when they take the stage together.
“Improvisation becomes kind of second nature to us at this point,” Lake says. “Working with another great improviser, it’s just going to be an exciting time.”
J.R. Pierce is a Goldring Arts Journalist at Syracuse University.