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A jazz great and a literary lion say they're not collaborating -- 'This is how we live'

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Novelist, critic, and photographer Teju Cole
Novelist, critic, and photographer Teju Cole will appear with celebrated jazz musician and composer Vijay Iyer at the Walker Art Center on Friday and Saturday, June 1 and 2, 2018.
Courtesy of Yasmine Omari

Two old friends — an acclaimed jazz musician and a lauded writer — will perform a different kind of show at the Walker Art Center this coming Friday and Saturday. Vijay Iyer and Teju Cole have done versions of their piece "Blind Spot" before, but it's never the same.

Cole knows that some people may need convincing about "Blind Spot."

"It sounds like everyone's slam poetry nightmare," he said. "And yet it couldn't be farther from that."

Pianist, composer, and educator Vijay Iyer
Pianist, composer and educator Vijay Iyer will perform "Blind Spot" with Cole in Minneapolis. The collaboration uses music composed and played by Iyer and his band to accompany Cole's pictures and texts from his book "Blind Spot."
Courtesy of the Walker Art Center

Cole and Iyer have been friends for many years. Cole said he first met the jazz pianist around Columbia University in New York. Cole was a fan. He's a Nigerian-American writer and photographer, but it was long before he published his first novel in the West. Iyer remembers they just began hanging out.

"So our rapport goes back to just kicking around New York City together or riding the subway together and talking about music. Talking about the world," he laughed.

Iyer was already known for his collaborations with many musicians in the jazz and classical worlds. In fact, part of this weekend's program, presented at the Walker by the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra's Liquid Music series, will include Iyer playing with a quartet of SPCO string players.

Cole was working on what was to become his critically acclaimed novel "Open City." The book is comprised of the thoughts of a Nigerian-American man walking through New York. Initially it meanders, as thoughts often do. But it builds into a powerful tale of memory, place and responsibility. When the book published in 2011 to critical acclaim, Cole said Iyer then became his fan. He said Iyer wanted to write a musical suite using the "Open City" title.

"And so just doing due diligence he said 'Well is it OK if I use this title?'" Cole recalled. "And I said, 'Don't just use the title. Let's find a way to really do something with the book together.'"

So they collaborated.

It worked so well that when the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York asked Iyer to curate and perform a series of close to 100 micro-shows, he approached Cole again to do a few of them. Cole was then working on the images and essays for what was to become his book "Blind Spot."

"And those images are made in 25 different countries," Cole said "And the texts all take a sort of oblique approach to what is shown in those images. And the texts are concerned with buried layers of history that are present in every terrain."

What may appear as a nondescript spot to one person may be of immense personal importance to another. It may have been the site of a home, a kiss, a death. Cole argues that we all often fail to see, or are unable to see, the significance of place.

Iyer assembled musicians. Cole read while projecting some of the images. Iyer says the resulting combination packs emotional power.

"Each image has a kind of back story," he said. "You are looking at an artfully composed shot, but it's kind of empty. Maybe a street sign, or the side of a building, or something like that. And then as he reads this accompanying essay, you come to know more about what you are looking at. And something sinks in. Often a kind of horror, or a kind of melancholy or a kind of dread."

The music changes for each show. At the Walker, Iyer will play piano in a trio with a cellist and a mallet percussionist. Cole said he doesn't know what he will hear. Iyer describes it as an unfolding process where the musicians are pushing back at what they are seeing in the images and hearing from Cole.

"Much is made of the art of playing," he said. "But most of playing involves not playing. I mean, it involves listening to others and playing relationally. The choices you make have to happen in relation to what's happening around you." 

The SPCO's Liquid Music Series is built around artistic collaborations, sometimes across genres. When asked what attracts him to this kind of work, Cole said "This is simply how we live."