For those unfamiliar with his work, Vijay Yier is one of today’s leading pianists in jazz and improvised music, drawing influences from his Indian heritage as well as pop music to create a truly innovative and original sound.
For this month’s festival issue of The Purple Cabbage, we caught up with Vijay to talk about touring and how it has affected his life as a performing musician. Vijay will be appearing at the Glenn Gould Studio on Tuesday, June 28 as part of the TD Toronto Jazz Festival where he will be performing material from his most recent solo piano release.
Purple Cabbage: How did you start touring, and what was the process like?
Vijay Yier: Well, the first touring I did was in the mid 90’s when I was living in California, in Oakland, and I got hired by Steve Coleman to go to Europe. So that was sort of my first experience doing anything of the sort, and that was really exciting and it changed my life, really. I was at the time also leading my own group too in the Bay Area, but I guess touring started to first become possible after I released my first album and I had gotten enough press and enough promo and a reputation among the sort of aficionados, who thought that I had something to offer, you know. But then translating that into gigs, that was still pretty slow. I remember I was able to do some college gigs, and some small galleries and campus things out in California — like I was mostly west coast, you know when I was living out there. So things didn’t really jump off for me, as far as touring widely, until more recently.
The other thing for me was playing with a hip hop group in the 90’s, and we got to tour a bit around the US. That was because one of the MCs had been on MTV’s The Real World [laughs] so he was kind of a celebrity and he had sort of parléd that into a career playing at colleges and we would often use that as a way to get the band in too, so that kind of gave us an opportunity to play around the US a bit. So through him, that group had a chance to come out a couple of times. Generally, it’s actually pretty hard to tour in the States. I mean, if you don’t have college things, you’re kind of bankrolling it.
PC: Have you found European touring maybe a little bit different?
VY: Well there are just many more places to play in Europe and some more density there. Probably because there is more funding for the arts there and so there are a lot more performing opportunities, like a concert series, a festival, or even often like a jazz club, which will have some city funding to remain operational. We hardly ever have that here. In February of this year I did probably the longest US tour I’ve ever done as a leader, which was nine shows in a row [he laughs] you know, which isn’t a lot, but it was the most we could string together in a row and it was really nice. I really like touring in the US, but it’s generally just not that viable. It’s nice to tour in places where you really feel that you’re “of the same stuff” as everybody else. When you’re touring in Europe you’re sort of more like a foreign specimen. It’s different from touring in the places you live.
PC: In an article in Downbeat Magazine a few months ago, Dave Douglas said that his first European tour was booked from his New York apartment all on his own. Is this something you’ve had to do, or something you’ve had to work with in the past?
VY: We’ll, I’ve done it different ways, like strung together a handful of things, but I think my first engagement as a leader in Europe was in ’99 in Verona at a jazz festival where I was just invited to go out there to do that with my band. So little by little we tried stringing together other gigs. Also by then I was living in New York City and was able to start working with a booking agent, after I’d reached that critical mass of people in the music industry who can connect you to the rest of the world. Actually if you don’t live in New York, it’s a lot harder to pull them together. There’s a sort of connectivity and a network here.
PC: Was that the reason for you moving to New York?
VY: I think ultimately that’s why everybody moves here. As a musician, this is where the world is watching, kind of. It’s where you can get connected to the rest of the world.
PC: Some see touring as something that takes away from the artist’s true art of simply performing and writing. How do the negatives and positives stack up, and what are some of them?
VY: There is a balance. I mean it’s possible to just become a kind of road dog. You can start to lose a certain aspect of yourself if all you do is tour. But I will say that, you know, last year I probably toured more than I ever have in my life, and it was really gruelling, but you know I’m definitely stronger from it. Also what I found is that especially with this area of music, that what you discover in the course of 4 months and in the course of connecting with different audiences, there’s no substitute for that, and in a way it’s the greatest gift that you can ever receive: the opportunity to discover that. I learned so much through all those experiences playing live — and not just about music, but about being a person. I feel like I wouldn’t trade that in for anything. And I also know that it’s important to find time off when you can think about the larger plan and kind of regroup and sort of reground yourself. So there definitely needs to be a balance at the end of the day.
But I am really glad that I was pushed to break my own understanding, which is what happened to me because of touring with my trio, and solo concerts, and by being in a different city every night for weeks on end, and seeing how music works in different countries. Having all these kinds of encounters that you do, an improviser, it means that you are responding to all of that at every moment. And that makes you, you know — the more pure your responses are, it kind of makes you a better person. I really believe that.
PC: Do you ever get a chance to compose on the road, or do you find it’s too hectic?
VY: I try, but I find it depends on the situation, like last week I flew around the world [laughs], but I was able to be in one place for three nights at a time, and another place for three nights at a time, and that was actually kind of leisurely and I felt like I had time where I could work on music because I wasn’t in transit all the time. There is only so much I can do while I’m in transit because I’m always worried about all the mechanics of getting around and things like not missing my train stop and stuff like that. I can’t really concentrate or really immerse myself in the creative process all that much.
PC: How have you found touring as a solo piano act, with no band on the road with you?
VY: Well it means that sound check becomes my favourite time of day. It went from being the thing I dreaded the most to a thing that I actually cherish, because it actually gives me alone time with the instrument and a chance to kind of drift out and be myself, while not having to worry about putting on a show or really worrying about anything.
I also found that putting on a solo concert night after night, there’s a certain purity to it. In a way it’s such a discipline. It was really cleansing for me, almost like a ritual or a kind of Herculean trial, or something like that [laughs]. You know, just to do it night after night is really inspiring and I learned so much about myself and the instrument and I tried to push myself further each night in terms of depth and nuances and power and sound. It’s a wonderful experience and I’m so glad I’ve had the privilege to do it.
PC: What has been your most memorable moment on tour?
VY: Well, last fall, it turned out that I was with my trio in Azerbaijan on my birthday and we played at the National Concert Hall in Azerbaijan, and they had a jazz festival there and the whole audience — well somebody told the audience [that it was my birthday], and after intermission we came back on stage and the whole audience sang happy birthday for me and they brought out a cake and everything. I just couldn’t, it was something outrageous or something because like I was holding this–. Anyway, it was just one of those moments in life that you’ll always remember. The other thing was that it was so remote. I had never been there before and never imagined that I would ever go there. But yeah, it was a pretty memorable moment.
PC: What advice do you have for young musicians looking to go on tour?
VY: Well, I mean, for me it’s always been important to think of what I’m doing in relation to everything else, so not just about getting MY music heard but about connecting with people. You know, it’s not just about you; it’s also about what other people need and want. If you’re an artist or musician, part of your mission is to help people. So I guess you kind of have to check your ego. It can’t just be about putting yourself at the center of things. You can’t just do it because you want attention. You have to have a larger purpose that’s bigger than yourself, or else it’s not worth it — for you, or the people that came to see you.
The Purple Cabbage