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Jazz Musician Vijay Iyer Talks Improvisation, Basketball And Steph Curry — And Plays An Original Song

The Game Is A 'Tremendous Staged Improvisation'

Jeffrey Potter

You could make a strong case that improvisation is the essence of jazz. But to hear jazz pianist Vijay Iyer tell it, improvising is something we all do, even if we aren’t musicians.

Iyer is one of the most celebrated jazz musicians in the world right now, but he’s also something of a renaissance man. Not only is he Downbeat magazine’s “Jazz Artist of the Year,” he also has a MacArthur “genius” award, a Ph.D. in the science of music cognition and he’s a professor at Harvard University.

But in a recent interview, the celebrated improviser claimed that improvisation itself is not as rare or unique as we might think. He points to NBA star Steph Curry, and to the game of basketball more generally, as “a tremendous staged improvisation.”

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Even though the game itself is very structured, each trip down court presents an opportunity for something unique and unexpected. “That’s what makes the game watchable,” Iyer said.

Basketball has also played a role in Iyer’s own music. In 2009 he composed a series of jazz cues for the sports network ESPN. And though they may or may not have ever been used on the air (“I don’t watch TV, so I wouldn’t know”), he still remembers them. At least, sort of. As he sat at the piano, he improvised a version of a short piece inspired by basketball called “The Prowl.”

Listen to the song, and a snippet of Iyer’s conversation with Steve Paulson, below.