Arooj Aftab drops ‘Love In Exile’ – album of her dreams alongside Vijay Iyer, Shahzad Ismaily

Singer, songwriter’s latest is a collaborative live catalogue that she describes as 'high art'

Entertainment Desk March 27, 2023

A genre-spanning jazz pianist (Vijay Iyer), a Grammy-winning Urdu vocalist (Arooj Aftab), and a bassist-cum-Moog synthesist (Shahzad Ismaily), had stepped into a New York studio to record their first live album with no advance preparation, as per the Recording Academy. The trio, which formed in 2018 and developed its sound through improvisatory live shows, has now come out with its piece of “space” and is set to embark on a tour to bring it to everyone.

Aftab had announced Love In Exile, her then-upcoming album on February 23 on Instagram. To mark its arrival on March 24, she declared on the photo-sharing app, “Wow! this record is finally in the world. A journey in listening and trust, innovation and exploration, new stuff with ancestral touches, Love In Exile is the high art album of my dreams.”


A post shared by Arooj Aftab (@aroojaftab)

She reminisced collaborating with “very elevated beings; Iyer and Ismaily” for it, and expressed feeling all grown up. “Streaming everywhere, the vinyl is also beautiful you should get it. And we’re starting our tour! Swipe for dates,” added the singer.

When the Recording Academy asked whether the collaborative catalogue is entirely improvised, pianist and Harvard professor Iyer reflected, “I don't even think that 'improvisation' is the right word for it, because it's actually just co-composition in real time. It's not taking solos or something. It's really like, okay, well, this is what the song is. Whatever's happening now, this is the song. So, what should happen next in the song?”

As per the Academy, the “sovereignty of the now — and of each other” governs Love In Exile: “Together, Aftab, Iyer and Ismaily seem to slow time; the sound of tracks like To Remain/To Return, Eyes of the Endless and Sharabi is capacious but never diffused, abstract but never aimless.”

The Rolling Stone’s Brenna Ehrlich describes Love In Exile as “more akin to visiting some sort of beautiful, strange sonic landscape made from strings, keys, and breath.” It features tracks that go well past the 10-minute mark and is a “masterclass in space,” suggested that not every second is packed with layers of sound and production. “Instead, the musicians trade off and dart around one another like ‘a school of fish,’ as Aftab describes it.”


A post shared by Arooj Aftab (@aroojaftab)

As per The Guardian, the album sees Aftab “balancing her melismatic voice between entirely percussion-less, almost ambient soundscapes.” It adds that each of the album’s seven compositions build “undulating textures as if establishing an onstage atmosphere. It is ultimately the sound of a trio playing in gentle harmony.”

Aftab frequently described Love In Exile as "ethereal," as per the Academy, and recalled how it came into being “I met Vijay at Merkin Hall in New York. I was invited to play a set before his set. He was doing this special collab. I knew Vijay and his music from before, and I had always been like, ‘Wow, this guy, he is amazing.’ So, meeting him, I was a little intimidated. May not intimidated, but definitely like, ‘Oh s—, it's Vijay.’ But we did a little collab that night — just an improv thing — and it felt really great. I was so surprised that it was so easy and so beautiful and so musical. You don't expect that just happening, you know? You have to work hard to find that sort of musical collaborator. And Shahzad, I had been [asked] lots here and there in New York, ‘Hey, do you know Shahzad?’”

Ismaily exclaimed, “[Singer/songwriter] Meshell Ndegeocello gave me [your record Bird Under Water] before I met you. She was like, ‘Hey, I think I'm going to be working with this person.’ So, she gave me that, and then I was obsessively listening to it for a while.”

Upon being asked how they established their artistic parameters in the studio once their live dynamic was sorted, Iyer responded, “I think the method has always been co-construction. And since we committed to that from literally note one, or sound zero, at the first show five years ago, it's never not been that.” Aftab, too, chimed in, “I think there were definitely some soaring moments that we felt from the previous six gigs that we played before we went into the studio, but we never really wrote anything down or planned a structure. I definitely remember that even the first time we did it, we were dared to do it, really. There was a lot of super-hardcore listening and trust that was happening.”

She recalled being careful about not stepping on anyone’s toes and only coming in when really needed. “It was not planned so you don't really know what’s going to happen. Or, if you're coming in or just interrupting someone's thought? But there was so much unspoken trust and communication between the three of us and there was just such a great language of listening and playing happening.”

The Udhero Na crooner also explained why the whole process was fun. “When I start singing, everybody sorts of steps back to give me space. And I hate that, because I'm just like: I am going to go with you guys. Don't make a clearing for me. It's boring now, because it's just me here alone. Play with me. And they never backed away, and it was amazing. They have so much more than I do in terms of experience and wisdom in being musicians, and I think that every entry and exit point is coming from that — that experience that we carry as composers and musicians in our own right. So, it's not prepared, but it is coming from [that]. It is a learned thing, and it is a skill, definitely, that's being applied there, that is a very difficult one — which is trust, intuition, listening, and basically being creative in that sense.”

Asked about her focus on the sound of her words as opposed to their literal meaning, Aftab shared, “The approach is to pretend to be an instrument, to whatever extent that is possible as a vocalist. You need vowels and stuff, and you need words to really get things going. Sometimes, the words are the instrument too. They're actually the keys sometimes. So, I had fragments of poetry. Some of it's from Vulture Prince. Some of it's from Bird Under Water and some of it is completely new stuff. But I chose it based on the mood of where I thought the songs were going musically. It's not meant to be the song. It's not meant to tell the story. I think I wanted the three of us to be telling the story — not just me, the singer.”

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