Arooj Aftab Reaches Out & Touches Your Soul On Her Latest Experimental Jazz Album

(left to right) Arooj Aftab, Vijay Iyer, and Shahzad Ismaily
(left to right) Arooj Aftab, Vijay Iyer, and Shahzad IsmailyNPR

Sonic synergy flows intricately in the latest experimental jazz album Love In Exile— a labor of love of three talented contemporary musicians, Arooj Aftab, Vijay Iyer, and Shahzad Ismaily. Aftab, the Grammy award-winning Pakistani singer, and composer collaborated with pianist and jazz composer Vijay Iyer and multi-instrumentalist Shahzad Ismaily to create this modern masterpiece.

Pakistan-born, Brooklyn-based composer Arooj Aftab broke into the music scene with her debut album Bird Under Water in 2015. She is renowned for her vocal prowess where each vibrato resonates with strong emotions. The hauntingly beautiful lyrics of her songs combine genres and styles and break away from traditional music approaches. She won the Best Global Music Performance award for her song Mohabbat at the 64th Annual Grammy Awards. Her contributions to modern music, especially the neo-Sufi genre, have earned her a loyal fan following.

Vijay Iyer is an American composer, pianist, bandleader, producer, and writer based out of New York City. He is renowned for his role as a composer of concert music and has collaborated with several talented musicians across the globe. The 50-year-old musical polymath has worked across genres such as western classical, post-bop progressive jazz, pop, and contemporary jazz.

Shahzad Ismaily is born and raised in the United States by Pakistani parents. Sound has been his medium and essence since childhood. He is mostly self-taught as a musician, composer, recording engineer, and producer. He primarily plays electric bass, drums, percussion, guitar, synthesizers, and uses all manner of sounds that he has picked up from life’s journeys. Ismaily has collaborated with renowned global names from the music industry and also teaches music at the prestigious Atlantic Centre for the Arts in Florida.

With such rich musical backgrounds and the experience of these three artists, it is no wonder that Love in Exile turned out to be such a beautiful aural experience. In the album, Aftab’s enigmatic vocals craft an aggregation of deep-seated emotions through the ritualistic repetition of a few lines of Urdu poetry. In Ismaily and Iyer, she has found the ideal collaborators, who can translate her ideas into a sonic experience. Iyer’s soulful piano combined with Ismaily’s potent bass playing weaves a wonderful aural tapestry, with Aftab’s voice as its north star. The title of the album plays with the ideas of diaspora and longing; the mysterious way that a song form can emerge out of group improv and "ritual time" as an expression of tempo not ruled by genres or market concerns.

This six-track album was recorded live in a New York studio and released with minimal editing. The tracks retain the unrushed, conversational feel of improvisation, but without any of improv’s attendant looseness. Aftab indulges in themes of love, loss, and longing, in a manner reminiscent of her previous works. The album is a free mellifluous exploration of meaning that draws on on the Urdu ghazals and qawwalis from which Aftab’s lyrics are inspired.

You can also listen to the album on Spotify here.