Rating: 9.4
March 8, 2011

What is the sound of a people reaching for freedom, seeking transformation? Quite simply it is the newly released Tirtha, on the ACT Music label. The answer emerges in the inaugural project of a trio comprised of acclaimed artists Vijay Iyer, Nitin Mitta and Prasanna. Tirtha, a Sanskrit word meaning spiritual pilgrimage to a holy place near a body of water, brilliantly melds swatches of Hindustani, Western jazz and traditional Carnatic music and unfolds like a transcendental voyage. The album stretches across musical and cultural landscapes blurring aesthetic and scientific concepts of space and time. This project is daring in its risk-taking, resisting cliche and the trappings that come with resting too long in any one musical tradition. Tirtha illustrates how musicians stretch creatively while urging audiences to widen their aural palates as well. The result is a project that leaves jazz aficionados with an album worth listening to for years to come.

In a 2010 for an On Canvas feature, Brooklynite Vijay Iyer, explains his creative technique in terms of yogic practice. Lauded as one of today’s most talented jazz pianists, Iyer describes a creative process that pushes him beyond his limits and boundaries as an artist to expand what is artistically possible, much like a yoga practitioner pushes corporeal and mental boundaries with meditation and asanas. He says this process unearths a “compelling sound” that is synonymous with a people reaching for justice.

One experiences the radical potential of the creative reach during the title track, “Tirtha.” Listeners are welcomed into the piece as the piano fades in joining Hyderabad native Nitin Mitta’s divine work on the tabla, a traditional Indian drum. After listeners are ushered in, the drama builds through a rhythmic conversation between the Vijay and Prasanna, Chennai native, on guitar. The piece becomes an imperative, a call to action to come deeper into the spiritual journey with the trio. Before listeners exit the piece, they are gripped by Nitin as he takes an inspired solo, palms seeming to flutter like hummingbird wings against the tabla.

Prasanna’s vocal play is a welcomed surprise in “Tribal Wisdom.” Part Carnatic-inspired scat, part beat-box, he shines during the solo and leaves listeners desiring more vocal instrumentation. No spiritual quest would be complete without a foray into Falsehood. Here Prasanna and Vijay take the stage showcasing inspired skills that unfold like incantations- energetically focused and purposeful.

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The journey continues with “Polytheism”. Imagine multiple deities- the tabla, the guitar and the piano vying for the listeners’ devotion. A poly-rhythmic battle ensues among the instruments until the final note demands the unmitigated worship of all three-a reverence for the musical trinity.

What can entropy, the expression of disorder and randomness, teach about jazz composition? What can jazz composition teach about entropy? The final cut, “Entropy and Time” explores responses to both questions. Perhaps, jazz and entropy are variations or shades of the same concept. It is possible that these artists are as invested in magic of disorder as they are in the possible finality of a jazz composition. “Entropy and Time” embodies an energy that Vijay, Nitin, and Prasanna conjure throughout the project. The trio push and pull time effortlessly diminishing the order-disorder, pre-figured-random binary to reveal flavorful sinews and nuances. Maybe the answer is revealed through a musician’s intimate connection with entropy in which creative power is shared with and through the music-making process and no one is attached to a illusory outcome. The exploration reveals multiple ways to get inside rhythm to reveal how jazz artists, and perhaps listeners, can be masters of time, honoring it reverently without being beholden to it.

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Listen to Tirtha. Contemplate your purpose in the world. Then, listen again. Consider how you will embark on your journey for transformation. Meditate on how you will find that literal or metaphoric holy place close to body of water. What ever that place is for you, take this album with you and bare witness as your hardships disappear.

Words by Ebony Noelle Golden


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