Boundary-pushing pianist Vijay Iyer follows up on his bold 2010 release, Solo, with an engaging synthesis of piano, guitar, and tabla.
Iyer is joined by two musicians who come out of the Carnatic tradition of South India. Nitin Mitta provides percussion for the group on tabla, which, if you don't know, is actually a pair of drums – the smaller of which is struck with all parts of the hand, the bigger drum being more resonant and open to manipulation of pitch.
On guitar – a standard Western-style electric guitar – we have the presence of Prasanna. I first heard some of Prasanna's work on the soundtrack of the Bollywood cricket-epic Lagaan. Other listeners might have heard bits and pieces of his collaboration with Victor Wooten or even tracks from the Jimi Hendrix tribute Electric Ganesha Land. Both Mitta and Prassana, like Iyer, are world-class world music musicians, and their collaboration on Tirtha is worth sitting up and listening closely to.
The albums opening track, “Duality,” beings with tension, dissonance, and a layered sense of time that might represent the problem of mind and body, East and West. After a frenzied start, the tune gives way to an Iyer solo in full conversation with Mitta, who demonstrates the versatility of the tabla. Following this, Prasanna takes his guitar into a typically angular solo, grounded in a more dissonant sense of harmonics and, at times, a microtonal inflection that feels like a different kind of blues altogether. It is a relentless track -- challenging and dramatic.
“Tribal Wisdom” begins with Mitta talking in accompaniment to his drumming -- mirroring his playing so you might more clearly hear how he speaks through the instrument. Driven throughout by a low vamp, the song works best in its closing minutes, when Mitta has the tune all to himself. The title song, "Tirtha" (a Sanskrit word that literally means a ford, or shallow part of a body of water that may be easily crossed, but has figurative meaning in terms of reaching nirvana), takes a dynamic approach, starting in open, lyrical voicings and moving to more percussive and quick phrases, finding a sort of conclusive peace in the resolution.
Particularly effective is the song, “Abundance,” taken at a meditative tempo and built around a gorgeous set of changes, and which offers some of Prasanna's finest playing, accompanied at points by the guitarist's relaxed singing. Other highlights on the album include the brief "Gauntlet," a gamelan reminiscent of King Crimson's fourth lineup, and the album's closer, “Entropy and Time," which, despite its audacious title, may be the song come the closest to both jazz and through-composed music on the release.
Although Tirtha may challenge listeners who don't yet have the musical vocabulary to hear all that is going on in the playing, the easiest way to find the way home is to remember that Iyer is still playing the piano, and Prasanna is playing the guitar. They are simply so skilled at their instruments and across a range of traditions that, at times, the music sounds so fresh and interesting. Hopefully, for most people, that will be the most exciting of prospects. Confident, original, and engrossing, Tirtha is yet another example of Vijay Iyer -- in good company, time around -- continuing to build bridges toward a richly global music.
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