NEW YORK – Vijay Iyer could have spent his life delving into the mysteries of quantum mechanics after graduating from Yale University with a combined major in math and physics.
While earning a Ph.D. in the cognitive science of music from University of California, Berkeley, however, Iyer felt a stronger tug toward the musician’s life.
So instead of pursuing mathematics or music theory, he’s adding Michael Jackson to his modern jazz repertoire.
He began playing violin and piano at 3, long before learning about physics and the musings of Isaac Newton.
“I thought science would be my career, but I was playing music all the time,” said the silky-voiced Iyer, 40, by telephone from his Manhattan home. Music “is not something that happens in the abstract, in space. It’s something that is done for other people.”
Iyer’s adventurous trio is onstage now at Manhattan’s Birdland jazz club. Iyer, drummer Marcus Gilmore and bassist Stephan Crump, will play tunes from “Accelerando,” Iyer’s 16th album.
Although rooted in jazz, his music borrows from pop, African music, spoken word and orchestral settings. He excels at edgy remakes of standards and classics from outside the jazz sphere.
“Historicity,” his daring 2009 release, recast a Stevie Wonder tune and “Somewhere,” the Leonard Bernstein-Stephen Sondheim masterpiece from “West Side Story,” and was nominated for a Grammy Award. DownBeat magazine’s international critics poll also gave it its top ranking.
“The main thing about acclaim is that it opens doors,” said Iyer, who teaches at the Manhattan School of Music and New York University.
“Accelerando” includes Jackson’s 1983 hit, “Human Nature.” Iyer, a longtime Jackson fan, first recorded a solo version of the song two years ago.
“We were sort of messing around with it at a gig in Kansas City, and that night Marcus said, ‘Yes, we can play this,’ ” Iyer recalled. “We all share a deep reverence for Jackson.”
Other tunes from the CD include a clever twist on jazz saxophonist Henry Threadgill’s “Little Pocket Size Demons” and “The Star of the Story,” originally recorded by the 1970s funk-disco group Heatwave.
After moving to New York in 1998, Iyer took low-paying gigs in small clubs such as the Knitting Factory, where an idol of his, the composer and arranger Muhal Richard Abrams, paid him a visit.
“I told him that I’m sorry he had to come to a place like this, and Muhal says, ‘Well, just play your way out of here,’ ” Iyer remembered. “That was good advice.”