Ojai’s twists and turns

The mu­sic fes­ti­val ex­pands its eclec­tic vi­sion un­der the eye of Vi­jay Iyer this year.

Los Angeles Times - - ARTS & BOOKS - By Chris Bar­ton chris.bar­ton@la­times.com Twit­ter: @chris­bar­ton

Look­ing at the sched­ule for the Ojai Mu­sic Fes­ti­val — that an­nual gath­er­ing in the bo­hemian, spir­i­tu­ally search­ing Shangri-La some 88 miles from down­town Los An­ge­les — and some­thing may seem un­usual this year.

Usu­ally a desti­na­tion for fans of clas­si­cal mu­sic, dance and opera since its start in 1947, Ojai has seen artis­tic direc­tion from a who’s who from those worlds, in­clud­ing re­cent turns with Peter Sel­lars, Mark Mor­ris and Jeremy Denk, who all were em­pow­ered to build a fes­ti­val ac­cord­ing to their vi­sion.

The four-day fes­ti­val open­ing Thurs­day, how­ever, packed with names like An­thony Brax­ton, Jen Shyu and Tyshawn Sorey, bears less of an im­me­di­ate re­sem­blance to where Ojai has been and in­stead re­sem­bles a new desti­na­tion, some­thing akin to John Zorn’s New York avant-jazz in­cu­ba­tor the Stone.

The rea­son for the change: this year’s artis­tic di­rec­tor, Vi­jay Iyer. The prodi­giously tal­ented pi­anist’s vi­sion as a com­poser and im­pro­viser has stretched be­yond his typ­i­cally des­ig­nated genre of jazz to en­com­pass hip-hop, cham­ber mu­sic and South In­dian clas­si­cal mu­sic. Most of these styles will be in some way re­flected at Ojai, which this year looks like L.A.’s most ad­ven­tur­ous jazz fes­ti­val as well.

“I knew [this year’s fes­ti­val] would sort of bring a pretty dif­fer­ent story to Ojai or a dif­fer­ent per­spec­tive or a dif­fer­ent set of aes­thet­ics or dif­fer­ent ways of mak­ing mu­sic into that sphere,” Iyer said by phone from his home in Har­lem. Days be­fore, he had com­pleted a run of shows at New York’s sto­ried jazz club the Vil­lage Van­guard.

“But Tom [Mor­ris, the fes­ti­val’s artis­tic di­rec­tor] was open to all of it, and I fig­ured if he doesn’t say no, who else is go­ing to?” Iyer added with a laugh.

Mor­ris, for his part, doesn’t see this lineup as a di­ver­sion for an eclec­tic fes­ti­val that has long made room for jazz, in­clud­ing a 1962 per­for­mance of Edgard Varèse by the great Eric Dol­phy. Ev­ery Ojai fes­ti­val is dif­fer­ent from the rest, he said. “When a mem­ber of the au­di­ence has a great time at the Ojai fes­ti­val and says, ‘How are you go­ing to top that next year?’ We don’t even think about that.”

Iyer, 45, was born in Rochester, N.Y., and earned a PhD at UC Berke­ley, where he ex­plored the meet­ing of tech­nol­ogy and the arts. He has lived since 1999 in New York, where last year he cu­rated a month­long run of shows at the Met Breuer as artist-in-res­i­dence for the Met­ro­pol­i­tan Mu­seum of Art.

Some­what un­fa­mil­iar with the Ojai fes­ti­val be­fore be­ing tasked with shap­ing it, he joked about be­ing mys­ti­fied as to how he came to join the ever-chang­ing cast of cu­ra­tors. It hap­pened not long af­ter Mor­ris caught one of Iyer’s sets at the Stone in 2015.

“What’s most in­ter­est­ing to me is he’s a very hard artist to de­scribe,” Mor­ris said. “To call him a jazz pi­anist is hope­lessly lim­it­ing. But he’s a se­ri­ous com­poser, he’s an im­pro­viser, he’s a col­lab­o­ra­tor, he’s a writer, he’s a teacher, and a very deep thinker. He sees mu­sic in a so­cial con­text, which is in­trigu­ing.”

That in­ter­est in re­flect­ing the world be­yond the band­stand can be heard in many of Iyer’s projects, in­clud­ing “Hold­ing It Down: The Veter­ans’ Dreams Project,” a 2013 record­ing that blended po­etry and jazz to ex­am­ine the Iraq war and its af­ter­math, and a three-part “Suite for Trayvon (and Thou­sands More),” a tur­bu­lent piece in re­sponse to the death of Trayvon Martin that teamed Iyer with the veteran jazz en­sem­ble Trio 3.

“I guess the mu­sic I’ve found my­self to be a part of has al­ways had a cer­tain kind of sen­si­bil­ity of defiance and in­sis­tence on dig­nity and be­ing treated as hu­man be­ings,” Iyer said. “Be­ing heard as hu­man be­ings, not as mere en­ter­tain­ers or as com­modi­ties.”

Win­ner of a MacArthur “ge­nius” grant in 2013, pro­fes­sor of mu­sic at Har­vard and fix­ture atop year-end lists for al­bums such as his trio’s 2015 “Break Stuff ” and his 2016 duet with Wadada Leo Smith, “A Cos­mic Rhythm With Each Stroke,” Iyer is hardly an un­known com­mod­ity. The Ojai bill re­flects the broad, col­lab­o­ra­tive reach of his mu­si­cal vi­sion in per­for­mances that in­clude his trio, his duet with Smith, a new group fea­tur­ing tabla mas­ter Zakir Hus­sain and vo­cal­ist Aruna Sairam and a fes­ti­val-closing set by his sex­tet.

“It’s all stuff that I’ve gen­uinely been a part of,” Iyer said of the eclec­tic scope of his mu­sic. “It’s not like, ‘Oh, this is my In­dian mu­sic bag, and this is my clas­si­cal mu­sic bag,’ or some­thing like that. It’s re­ally like, well, all of this de­serves to be heard to­gether be­cause it’s all part of one breath.”

But Iyer also has reached for some­thing broader: nods to­ward Mozart, Bach and Stravin­sky as well as work by Court­ney Bryan, a New Or­leans-born pi­anist and com­poser whose op­er­atic piece “Yet Un­heard” de­liv­ers a sort of el­egy for San­dra Bland, a black woman in Texas who died in po­lice cus­tody in 2015.

“This piece is chan­nel­ing her spirit, you know?” Iyer said. “There’s some­thing mys­ti­cal and de­vo­tional about it, there’s some­thing very haunt­ing about it and also right­eous and very stir­ring. I’m re­ally glad it’s go­ing to close that night be­cause that’s a heavy day of mu­sic, and I think it’s go­ing to send us all home with some­thing to med­i­tate on.”

The weekend also of­fers a snap­shot of Chicago’s Assn. for the Ad­vance­ment of Cre­ative Mu­si­cians col­lec­tive, or AACM, a broad cre­ative mu­sic in­cu­ba­tor that formed in the 1960s and counted among its mem­bers 2016 Pulitzer Prize win­ner Henry Thread­g­ill. Ojai will also fea­ture flutist and com­poser Ni­cole Mitchell, the West Coast pre­miere of an opera by Ge­orge Lewis and a trio sum­mit of some of the or­ga­ni­za­tion’s key fig­ures in Lewis, Muhal Richard Abrams and Roscoe Mitchell.

While AACM re­sists fit­ting un­der a sin­gle ide­ol­ogy, its history of in­de­pen­dence and self-de­ter­mi­na­tion has long drawn Iyer’s ad­mi­ra­tion. “There’s a sen­si­bil­ity,” he said, “that’s worth study­ing and learn­ing from.”

Though as­pects of Iyer’s vi­sion for Ojai in­evitably can be read as a re­flec­tion or re­sponse to the tu­mul­tuous po­lit­i­cal cli­mate, he laughed off the idea. “We started pro­gram­ming it two years ago,” he said. “A lot of this was in place long be­fore the elec­tion.”

That said, in Iyer’s view the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion has made re­sis­tance a hu­man im­per­a­tive as well as an artis­tic one. Through mu­sic, he finds as much of a means to tran­scend a di­vided time as well as con­front it.

“It’s prob­a­bly about get­ting off of the screen and into each other, be­ing among each other,” Iyer said. “We just got out of play­ing a week at the Van­guard, and you’re play­ing in a packed, very cramped room, and sum­mon­ing some kind of an­cient en­er­gies.

“It’s not that one wants to es­cape but one wants to sort of re­mind our­selves of what else it is we’re ca­pa­ble of as peo­ple,” he said. “Es­pe­cially as a gath­er­ing of peo­ple.”

Carolyn Cole Los An­ge­les Times

PI­ANIST VI­JAY IYER, one of the most cel­e­brated tal­ents in jazz, is bring­ing many styles to the fes­ti­val.

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