Since 2015, Arooj Aftab has slowly distilled the essence of his work. On his debut album, bird under water, the Pakistani-born, Brooklyn-based composer melded ghazal, a South Asian style focused on loss and love, both romantic and divine, with pop, jazz and soul, finding consonance between musical traditions from different corners of the world. About the vibe of 2018 mermaid islands, she shed tradition, weaving her otherworldly voice between layers of synth. for 2021 vulture prince—his flagship record, an elegiac piece with filigree voice, harp, and violin—had learned to wring every drop of emotional resonance from a single elongated syllable, or the vibrato of a gently plucked harp string.
love in exileAftab’s new album in collaboration with jazz pianist and composer Vijay Iyer and multi-instrumentalist Shahzad Ismaily takes that distillation process even further: extracting all the pathos of an album from a handful of Urdu couplets, creating complex emotional inner worlds through the ritualistic repetition of a few lines of poetry. In Ismaily and Iyer he has found the perfect partners. All three are based on a shared vocabulary that is subtle, intricate and minimalist, yet incredibly expressive.
Recorded live in a New York studio and released with minimal editing, the album’s six tracks retain the leisurely, conversational feel of improvisation, but without the looseness that accompanies improvisation. Iyer’s intricate piano phrases and Ismaily’s throbbing bass and drones move in intuitive cycles, with textures and melodies slowly merging from the interplay between his instruments. Aftab’s powerful voice fits perfectly into these soundscapes, melancholic melismas that unfurl languidly like ink submerged in water. In moments, when Iyer’s piano melody weaves meandering shapes around Aftab’s vocals on “Sajni,” or Ismaily’s sepulchral Moog synth shares space with Iyer’s delicate top line on “Eye of the Endless,” their connection it seems telepathic, three seasoned musicians breathing together as one organism.
This powerful chemistry is shown from the first moments. Synths glow like a cosmic ebb at the start of “To Remain/To Return”, occasionally interrupted by a portentous thump of bass. Iyer begins with wavering, stuttering notes, as if he’s testing the waters, before finally settling into a winding piano phrase that twists and turns, subtly mutating as it repeats. Aftab joins in after three minutes, his expansive voice inserting itself into the spaces left by the two instrumentalists. That heartbroken first “Jaa re” (“Go now”) sets the emotional tone of both the song and the record; His voice hints at deep reservoirs of pain, channeling centuries of South Asian cultural fascination with romantic tragedy.
On “Shadow Forces,” Aftab sings of existential angst over pensive piano in a minor key, his voice filled with dark unease. Iyer’s dark and dramatic cues add a cinematic touch (albeit more of a French arthouse film than a Michael Bay blockbuster). Meanwhile, the nearly 15-minute long “Eyes of the Endless” manages to be both monumental and deeply intimate.