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Album Review: Love In Exile
Arooj Aftab, Vijay Iyer & Shahzad Ismaily
Cover image of the album Love In Exile by Arooj Aftab, Vijay Iyer & Shahzad Ismaily
Love In Exile
Arooj Aftab, Vijay Iyer & Shahzad Ismaily
2023 / Verve Label Group
75 minutes
Review by Steve Yip
A new, impressive discovery: Love In Exile by the trio of Arooj Aftab, Vijay Iyer and Shahzad Ismaily ... so new for me and I found myself having to play giddyup! As the refrain in the Rolling Stone song goes... “time waits for no one...and it won’t wait for me”. So I am scrambling and doing what I can to bring myself up to speed on some important musical gems!

Released in March 2023, this album from my perspective, is a beautifully sensory, exploratory, experimental improvisation of sounds rooted in South Asian musical legacies” informed by jazz improvisation. Fronted by Brooklyn-based vocalist and composer Arooj Aftab, and backed up with improvised interplay by piano jazz virtuoso Vijay Iyer, with the highly sought-after session bassist and sonic whiz Shahzad Ismaily on Verve Records.

From my listener’s point of references, before this review, Vijay IIyer is a known and celebrated quality. Stumbling through a trove of media releases from Crossover Media, it was the familiarity with Vijay Iyer, this talented jazz piano genius whom I have experienced at least three times in concert that caught my attention. But Love In Exile’s three-way collaboration isn't concerned with just one musical personality, Vijay Iyer. It helped discover Arooj Aftab, who is without doubt the locus and chromosome of this musical triumvirate, that shook shit up. I am hard pressed to find another way to describe all this... The other discovery was Shahzad Ismaily, who also has a history in his own right.

Berklee graduate Arooj Aftab vocalizes not in English but in Urdu, the primary language spoken in Pakistan. One description cites Aftab’s music being “informed by Hindustani classical music, several South Asian poetic and devotional musical legacies as well as Western pop and jazz.” And she has a solid following from what I can tell. All this I was forced to discover. Aftab offers a soothingly lush operatic quality in her stunning deliveries. Her hypnotic voicing has been called “post-minimalist improv,” as she verbally sails from various South Asian poetic and musical platforms projecting verse complemented by Vijay Iyer and Shahzad Ismaily. Yes, it can be interesting listening to these unconstructed minimalist sounds as the artists work off each other.

Normally, I would, in ignorance, bypass and avoid such experimentations and derisively dismiss this formless stuff... as “space music.” There is a tremendous amount of interplay and improvisation deploying piano, Moog synthesizer, bass and other electronic what-have-you. Vijay Iyer is a recipient of the highly hyped MacArthur genius awards, who has been an exceptional jazz improv artist (he also has a Ph.D!). Shahzad Ismaily is also of South Asian descent who has broken bread with (described by other reviewers) the “outside”, “cranky” experimental guitarist Marc Ribot’s Ceramic Dog ( which struck me as a band practicing wild, no holds barred electric guitar noise with drums and bass), and many, many other artists other genres known and soon to be known. (And this dude also holds a master’s in biochemistry!)

What stands out are the vocalizations of Arooj Aftab, Brooklyn resident, composer and singer of Pakistani descent. In Arooj’s own descriptive words dropped in the interview that preceded the video presentation found on YouTube.com, it’s “...kind of open, sort of post-minimalist, improv between me, Vijay and Shahzad. It's just kind of a very open, sort of formless kind of music -- like motifs repeat[ing] themselves.”

Love In Exile is this trio’s premiere work, maybe it could also be the trio’s name, but that’s just some crazy speculation on my part. Try this music out: It’s a South Asian experimental fusion music that transcends and surprises. (There are other jazz musicians -- John Coltrane, Pharaoh Sanders -- who fuse jazz and ethnic Asian musical influences and instrumentation, including Asian American bands and artists like Hiroshima, and the late saxophonist/activist Fred Ho. That's a discussion for another time.)

Remember: Time waits for no one...The album is 75 minutes: seven songs are listed, but I’m not going to list or describe them. I also suspect that if the selections are performed live, you will find something vastly different from the album’s specific items if the trio puts their model of musical fusion into play, so let’s take this new music from a global view.

The individual artists' websites are:

Arooj Aftab

Vijay Iyer

Shahzad Ismaily
April 24, 2023
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