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Tuesday, April 25, 2023

Arooj Aftab, Vijay Iyer, Shahzad Ismaily - Love in Exile (Verve, 2023)

By Martin Schray

These three musicians would not really need to do this project together, because they are already are some of the most celebrated singers, pianists and session musicians, respectively, in different music scenes. The class of the three is undoubtedly recognized, which is why it’s right to call their joint venture a supergroup. These are the facts: vocalist Arooj Aftab became the first Pakistani artist to be awarded a Grammy (for the track “Mohabbat“ from her critically acclaimed album Vulture Prince) for "Best Global Music Performance." Vijay Iyer (piano, synthesizer) is one of today’s most influential jazz musicians, and Shahzad Ismaily (bass, Moog synthesizer) is famous for his sensitivity and technical brilliance, which he has proved as a session musician for Lou Reed (among others) and as a member of Marc Ribot’s Ceramic Dog. Five years ago the three came together onstage in New York City, in order to perform freely, which isn’t in itself absolutely unusual. But the result of this rather unlikely concert was surprisingly good, there was a certain musical connection. “I don’t know what just happened”, Iyer said after the gig. “But we should do it again.” The result is Love in Exile.

On the first track of the album, “To Remain/To Return“, synth textures simmer away, far away a bass drones gloomily. Piano chords and single notes drift around like ice floes. Only after about three minutes does Aftab’s distinctive voice set in almost shyly. Even though many of the song titles are in English, she sings entirely in Urdu, which ensures that what matters here for listeners in the Western world is not what she sings, but how she sings. Aftab borrows Urdu verses, re-arranging them in the tradition of the Qawwali singing style. As a result, these lines are a kind of instrument in their own right and her voice becomes more powerful and dominant as the album progresses. However, she is always part of the whole. Vijay Iyer, probably being the most exciting jazz pianist at the moment, often holds back very nobly and intersperses riffs, thematic set pieces and small improvisations very purposefully. This is most evident on “Shadow Forces“, which is based on four ascending piano notes that are built up into chords, augmented by a bass accompaniment, and finally very restrainedly supplemented by small ornaments. After five minutes, however, Ismaily and Iyer throw everything overboard and turn in a different direction, improvising for the remaining ten minutes. Aftab is smart enough to take herself completely out of it here. She also joins Iyer and Ismaily late in the following track, “Sajni“, only to soar in “Sharabi“ a bit later. The track, which in variations has become something like Aftab’s signature song (on Vulture Prince it’s called “Suroor“), is a quote from a piece by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and - as she pointed out at a live performance in Cologne - , it's about unrequited love and drinking, as many of her pieces are. The wonderful drowsiness of her performance is mirrored by the somber electronics of Ismaily.

Whether Love in Exile can now be considered jazz (or even free jazz) is debatable. The music is improvised in large parts and takes the time it needs to fully unfold, like a wine that needs a lot of time to breathe to fully develop all the flavors. Thus, the album is definitely a grand gesture in subtle tones, it is floating without ecstasy.

On the surface, Love in Exile can also be misunderstood as background music, as an album that rushes past you. But with concentrated listening, new traces, sounds and details emerge all the time, seemingly tiny shifts reveal new interpretations. The fascination opens up only slowly, but then remains all the more lasting.

Love in Exile is available as a double album on vinyl, as a CD and as a download.

Watch the video for “Shadow Forces“ here: