Vijay Iyer. Picture: Instagram

Internationally acclaimed jazz pianist Vijay Iyer is one of the few artists to play two different sets on the Rosies Stage at the Cape Town International Jazz Festival.

Iyer brings out his sextet to play both nights of the Festival on March 23 and 24, presenting original compositions on both nights.

Speaking from New York, Iyer said it had not been a tough decision to travel so far to get to Cape Town.


While it is difficult to organise and schedule a six-member band made up of people who also have their own careers, playing in South Africa is something he has wanted to do for a while.

“My mother-in-law is from Durban so I have been hearing stories for 20 years now,” said the Grammy-nominated composer/ bandleader.

He has worked with Steve Lehman (alto saxophone), Mark Shim (tenor saxophone), Marcus Gilmore (drums), Stephan Crump (bass) and Graham Haynes (cornet, flugelhorn) on various projects for more than 15 years and “there is a lot of trust and understanding. We are able to move together”.

“For us, every set is different. We have a repertoire we draw from but each manifestation is different.

“We don’t generally plan a set list, we like to go with the flow of things and there is a lot of improvisation with the music. We work with what is happening,” said Iyer.

Both sets on the Rosies stage will lean heavily on the album the sextet released to critical acclaim last year, Far from Over, which was voted one of the 50 best albums of 2017 by Rolling Stone magazine.

The studio featured the first time Iyer used a bank of horns and touched on so many different modes on one album.

“Also trio material that we sometimes incorporate into the sextet. A lot of different things could happen,” said Iyer. Crump and Gilmore play with him in the Vijay Iyer trio.

The Harvard professor of music will present a master class on Friday and he is not going in with a formal lesson plan or taking for granted that anyone in the room would necessarily know who he is.

Instead he will respond to what participants ask for, whether that means a technical lesson on a question of rhythm or answering a socio-political question about jazz.

“I guess I want to remain open to what people are interested in. It’s also 45 minutes, which goes by really fast,” he said.

Iyer warns that the existential question of defining jazz can become a blind alley when asked to elaborate on an online interview in which he spoke about jazz having a history of defiance and the music being about people coming together under dire circumstances to create beauty and change the world.

“Thelonius Monk said it best when he said you can’t make jazz do anything.

“You can’t force the whole totality of the history of the music and the system of music to really say just one thing,” said Iyer. - Staff Reporter