There can certainly be no fresher take on jazz than when an artist brings the rich experience of another culture to this uniquely American music. Swami Iyer was raised in Bombay and Delhi, where he studied the precise tonality and melodic depth of North and South Indian classical music. At the same time, the delirious exuberance of Bollywood musicals instilled in him a strong sense of music as a source of playfulness and fun. He carries both impulses into his jazz interpretations today, balancing effortless vocal technique with a warm, lighthearted style.
Swami’s first introduction to jazz occurred shortly after his move to the United States to pursue an advanced degree. After the Louis Armstrong tune “What a Wonderful World” caught his attention in the soundtrack of the film Good Morning, Vietnam, he dove enthusiastically into the repertoire of jazz standards. He began studying vocal performance and piano at the Jazzschool in Berkeley and quickly expanded his musical exploration immersing himself in the blues, New Orleans rhythm and blues, bebop, and contemporary jazz.
Swami finds a consistent theme in the diverse musical genres in his repertoire. “All these musical styles have a strong sense of groove,” he says. “I really think that’s the most elemental thing about music—it’s what makes it entertaining. I also look for a sense of lyricism in the melody, because that’s where it becomes art.”
Moved by the unspoken stories in some of his instrumental jazz favorites, Swami has written soulful lyrics to tunes by artists such as Wayne Shorter, Dexter Gordon, and Duke Pearson. He has also crafted fascinating new arrangements to standard tunes, including one that melds classical Indian vocals with traditional American jazz improvisation.
In a typical performance, Swami’s set list ranges from Duke Ellington to Wayne Shorter, and from Bessie Smith to Professor Longhair. His rich, supple baritone smoothly shifts to express the heart of each song. But no matter what kind of music he sings, Swami wants the audience to have fun. “When I think of jazz,” he explains, “I try to find the balance between entertainment and art. I want to perform tunes with a great groove and memorable lyrics, and maybe one or two songs that teach you something new. But if you go out on a Friday night, you should have a good time.”
Swami has performed with blues and jazz ensembles at Bay Area venues such as Café du Nord, the Saloon, the Rickshaw Stop, and the Jazzschool.
“Swami has studied jazz vocals with me for a few years now and his background as a classical Indian singer has been an asset in so many ways. He has a gorgeous voice, impeccable intonation, and an innate sense of musicality. This, coupled with his love for a wide range of jazz styles, from Wayne Shorter to the upbeat sounds of New Orleans make his repertoire exciting and complex. His presence is relaxed and his delivery spot on. Swami is a delight to listen to and a very confident performer.” ~Laurie Antonioli, Vocal Director, Jazzschool, Berkeley
“Swami always brings a deep feeling to his music which showcases his soulful, intelligent, and warm nature. I have watched his musical growth both as a singer and pianist and have enjoyed his musical curiosity and commitment to learning from jazz and blues masters of New Orleans and beyond.” ~Lee Bloom, Jazz Pianist