Arooj Aftab, Vijay Iyer, Shahzad Ismaily : Love In Exile

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best albums of 2023 Arooj Aftab Vijay Iyer Shahzad Ismaily

Arooj Aftab, Vijay Iyer and Shahzad Ismaily first came together as a collaborative unit onstage in New York City, with the purpose of performing without any pre-written material. All three musicians have a background in jazz and improvisatory music—Iyer a pianist and bandleader, Ismaily a collaborator with the likes of John Zorn and Ben Frost, and Aftab a vocalist and composer—and as such the simple idea of playing a fully spontaneous set isn’t in itself so unusual. But the result was beyond mere experiment, a kind of psychic connection through musical performance that yielded something more spiritual and profound that rehearsal and discipline alone couldn’t provide. “I don’t know what just happened,” Iyer said about their debut performance. “But we should do it again.”

Five years later, the trio has translated that unspoken chemistry into a stunning recorded document on Love In Exile, their first album as a trio. It’s also a remarkably intimate set of music, comprising performances from just these three musicians—Iyer playing piano and electronics, Ismaily on bass and synth, and Aftab singing in Urdu, which she’s said is as much about the musicality of her vocal sounds as the words themselves. Within that relatively narrow set of tools at their disposal, however, the three craft spacious, yet breathtaking and grand sonic worlds.

Love In Exile exists at the dimensional portal between jazz and ambient music, its compositions free of percussion, opening and expanding slowly like each one is a self-contained universe taking shape. With only the rare exception of “Sajni” at a brisk eight minutes, each of the six pieces here are all quite lengthy, most of them pushing beyond ten minutes as the trio almost seems to follow where the music takes them rather than vice-versa. They’re never predictable but always carry a certain internal logic about them, a spiritual beacon guiding them toward a resolution that somehow feels at once resolute and open-ended.

These pieces range from the haunting and eerie (“To Remain/To Return”) to the brighter and more serene (“Haseen Thi”), from the climactic and dramatic (“Shadow Forces”) to the spectral and cosmic (“Eyes of the Endless“). There’s no moment here that achieves anything less than awe-inspiring grace and beauty, and frequently with a sense of mystery to match. That it came about through the freedom of taking a journey without a map lends it a certain mystery but something more emotionally moving at that, tapping into a beauty that simply can’t be fabricated.

Label: Verve

Year: 2023

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