Someone once said that all music, even at its most abstract, is about something, and that is the passage of time. That might be, but there are musicians who can transcend time to enter other dimensions in music. Vocalist Arooj Aftab, multi-instrumentalist Shahzad Ismaily and pianist Vijay Iyer who, as Love In Exile, will come to the Cleveland Museum Of Art Wednesday, are among them.
“I think by design that when we play together, the music has space, and that space itself is maybe the fourth member of the ensemble, which I really love” said Aftab in a video call from Tempe, Arizona last week. “I think if the space holds anything, it holds the capacity for listening that is not just ours, it’s everybody’s,” Iyer added. So it’s kind of an invitation because the music itself is born of this process of listening that invites others to listen with us.”
That invitation is richly rewarded by a musical experience that can be reverent and passionate, ethereal and emotional, personal and universal. At the center of it is Aftab’s chocolately alto, a voice so warmly communicative that emotion encoded in the poetic couplets, sung in Urdu, register with immediacy.
Aftab, 38, became the first Pakistani artist to win a Grammy Award when her song “Mohabbat” was honored as the Best Global Music Performance in April 2022. Aftab gathers threads from jazz, art pop and electronica into a boundary-free musical practice that is completely shared by Ismaily and Iyer.
Iyer, 51, might be best known for the way his award-winning trios have expanded the language of one of jazz’s most iconic formations. Growing up in the Rochester suburbs. Iyer took violin lessons in the Western classical tradition. The 2013 MacArthur Fellowship winner is largely self-taught on piano, an instrument he approaches with bold gestures, conceptual daring and what Zen teacher Suzuki Roshi called “beginner’s mind.”
Ismaily, a 51-year-old Danville, Pennsylvania native, might have the most varied musical resume of the three. Last year alone, his credits included playing drums on a Beth Orton recording, producing Cass McCombs’ latest release and engineering dozens of sessions at his Figure 8 Studios in New York. The dub-influenced throb of his bass roots the ethereality of Love In Exile’s sound in a limber corporeality.
“I love performing with this band,” Ismaily said on the three-way video call. “I’ve been so touched by the fact that an audience will be ready for a 15-minute piece of music, from beginning to end, with a great deal of silence and focus and attention.”
That’s easy to achieve in the hushed, reverent space of Gartner Auditorium, but Love In Exile’s power to enchant works in unconventional settings, too, like this summer’s outdoor Newport Jazz Festival.
“In Newport, hearing all this intense shredding, I thought, how is the pace of our music going to work in this context?” Ismaily recalled asking himself. “That was a great show that that one’s high up in my favorites for sure,” Aftab said. “Sometimes you [say] ‘You know what? Let’s bring it,’ and it goes the opposite way where we play like rock stars instead of feeling like nervous and strange. It is really brave and a beautiful, exciting challenge to do this in this way every night without having a map.”
Aftab, Ismaily and Iyer weren’t the only ones operating without a map. Presenting Love In Exile was a first for Grog Shop owner Kathy Blackman and new CMA director of performing arts Gabe Pollack, who are co-presenters for Wednesday’s concert.
The two worked closely on the relaunch of the Cleveland Music Club Coalition in 2020 and when the opportunity came to present Love In Exile, both seized the moment. “Kathy and I spoke about this,” Pollack said. “Because the auditorium at the museum has a great piano and it’s a seated venue it made sense for us to collaborate.”
Blackman had presented shows in Gartner Auditorium before, “I love that venue and I think it’s so special and it sounds fantastic,” Blackman told me earlier today,” Blackman told me earlier today. “I thought this was such a unique, special project that Clevelanders would hopefully embrace and enjoy.”
Shahzad Ismaily has the same wish. “One of my personal wishes is that we’ve done well giving this music and this band a good deal of mystery, and I think I’ve enjoyed bands in my life who have that quality,” he said. “That mystery and the fact that we’re improvising and we’re spontaneously creating the structures that we play, really allows us to come back to this [music] when we want to, how we want to, and I think the audience will be there because of that.”
Love In Exile with Arooj Aftab, Shahzad Ismaily and Vijay Iyer, Wednesday, Oct. 4, 7:30, Gartner Auditorium, 11150 East Boulevard, Cleveland, tickets available here.