When Vijay Iyer performs, his Indian heritage gently seeps through the cracks in the fingerboard of his piano. The Bay Area-based pianist was born in 1971 after his family emigrated from India to the United States, and since his debut album, Memorophilia, was released, Iyer’s jazz compositions have always exhaled South-Indian undertones. His music has never strived to represent fusion music or “Indian jazz” or any other meaningless distinction. Iyer’s playing simply reflects his identity authentically and without hyperbole.
After releasing two albums in 2010, one of which was nominated for a Grammy, Iyer has just released his latest project titled Tirtha. Joining Iyer are highly acclaimed Indian musicians Prasanna (guitar) and Nitin Mitta (tablas). The trio recorded the album in 2008 in Brooklyn, NY, after forming a year earlier for a concert celebrating 60 years of Indian independence. Despite having never collaborated before, Iyer stated that during their “first rehearsal [they] felt a jolt of recognition.”
The cohesiveness of this band is remarkable throughout Tirtha. Prasanna’s guitar playing seems to exceed the capacity of the instrument, employing gamakas (ornamentation commonly used in Indian classical music) and sliding rapidly about the fret board as if he were playing a sitar. Mitta’s tabla work is indescribable. He is world famous for being one of the youngest technical virtuosos of the instrument, and his sensitivity and clarity while performing both melodic and rhythmic functions really shines on the album.
Unlike the instrumentation of a typical jazz trio, the combination of guitar, piano and tablas creates an interesting obstacle. The ranges of the three instruments are all large and relatively similar to one another, leaving the typical roles like bassist and soloist up for grabs. The musicians trade between these roles frequently without cluttering the sound. They explore the soundscapes of Iyer and Prasanna’s compositions while celebrating the freedoms of jazz forms and Carnatic melodies and rhythm. Many tracks feature interesting evolutions with new sections emerging from within. “Tribal Wisdom” begins with a single rhythmic voice and hands clapping, but it quickly grows into a complex and multi-layered sound with mind-numbingly rapid tabla patterns over Iyer’s subtly complex piano comping. The album ends with “Entropy and Time,” the introduction of which almost sounds like a cheerful version of “The End” by the Doors. Prasanna’s melodies slide around so quickly and effortlessly that, without the hum of his guitar amplifier hissing underneath, it actually sounds he is playing a Carnatic instrument.
This album is not fusion. It is not even Indian. But it shouldn’t have to be defined in these types of terms. With the experience of each of these musicians rooted in jazz, Carnatic and Hindustani music, Tirtha is the natural result of these worlds colliding. This album is clearly not one you would want to put on in the background of your next party. In every aspect (its forms, melodies, instrumentation, etc.) it is a challenging and engaging hour of music. But the most important thing about Tirtha is that it reflects the future. In the global community that we live in today, it is only natural that more multicultural music arises—not as fusion, crossover or hybrid genres, but as an expression of distant worlds becoming united.