What’s karmic payback for walking out of a Vijay Iyer show? Losing a recording of the most awestruck, rivetingly beautiful concert of the year, for starters – that, and missing out on most of a performance by this era’s most distinctive and arguably most influential pianist. Vijay, if you’re reading this, don’t take it personally. This blog’s proprietor once walked out on Pauline Oliveros too.
Not that she wasn’t great. It’s just that sometimes the demands of running a blog don’t always coincide with having a life. Saturday night at Merkin Concert Hall, it was at least good to get to see a rapturous, often mesmerizing performance by Pakistani singer and composer Arooj Aftab leading a quartet including pianist Leo Genovese, drummer Jorn Bielfeldt and synth player Yusuke Yamamoto through what seemed to be a largely improvisational suite.
Singing mostly vocalese in a cool, hushed, nuanced mezzo-soprano, Aftab ran her vocals through a series of effects for additional subtlety, adding reverb or looping her phrasing, mostly for the sake of rhythmic shifts. Genovese played the show of his life. Since Aftab’s ghazal-inspired tone poems don’t often shift key and typically eschew western harmony, the pianist assembled an eerily glittering architecture out of passing tones, first bringing to mind Bill Mays playing Angelo Badalamenti’s Twin Peaks themes, then raising the ante to white-knuckle terror in places. Although there was one interlude where Genovese took a long, energetic solo, he held back from going against the current and trying to make postbop out of Aftab’s pensive atmospherics…or taking the easy route and hanging back with open fifths and octaves.
Bielfeldt also played with remarkable and intuitive restraint. Toward the end, he and Genovese exchanged coyly conversational riffs as the music swelled, but otherwise he was all about the lustre. Under these circumstances, having a synth in the band usually spells disaster, but Yamamoto turned out to be a magic ingredient with his deep-space washes of chords and the occasional elegant synth bass riff.
After a roughly forty-minute set, Aftab brought out Iyer for a duo as the encore. It seemed at this point that for a pianist, following Genovese would be just plain cruel, considering how he’d just mined every macabre tonality in the keys and the overtone system. But Iyer went in a more optimistic direction, opting for an approach that was both more hypnotically rhythmic and minimalist, while airing out similar resonance from the overtones. Watching him think on his feet with a much more limited choice of options than usual was rewarding; sticking around for his own set would no doubt have been twice as fun. Iyer is currently on tour; he’ll be back in New York on May 9 leading a sextet through a week at the Vanguard.
Muslim mystical music being as diverse as Islam itself, it’s only appropriate that the new Volume 2 of the Rough Guide to Sufi Music would highlight the eclecticism of Sufi devotional music from around the globe. Some of the songs here are straight-up pop, others take ancient themes to trippy, psychedelic extremes, while traditionalists look back centuries and even millennia for inspiration. There’s a lot of cross-pollination: the sacred becomes profane and vice versa.
The compilation’s opening track, Zikr, by Kudsi Erguner vamps on a hypnotic Arabic flute theme. On one of the real standout tracks here, Syrian group Ensemble Al Kindi join forces with acclaimed sufi singer Sheikh Habboush for an epic that begins with a rippling qanun improvisation and builds to a swaying dance. Likewise, a number by Pakistani qawwali singer and 2006 BBC World Music award winner Sain Zahoor is more celebration than invocation or lament – and is that a Farfisa in the mix?
Two Senegalese artists are represented: Modue Gaye, whose artful, improvisational blend of West African and levantine sounds creates the single most memorable track here, and Cheikh Lo, who weighs in with a simple, mantralike acoustic guitar song. Afghani ensemble the Ahmad Sham Sufi Qawwali Group offer the most traditional song here, with its animated call-and-response, while Pakistani songstress Sanam Marvi contributes a neat update on some old ideas, spicing her guitar-based trip-hop with an imploring solo vocal intro and then rustically soaring fiddle.
There’s also reggae from Pakistani duo Arif Lohar & Meesha Shafi, trip-hop from Transglobal Underground and the Indian trio M. Abdul Gani, M. Haja Maideen & S.Sabur Maideen, and a surprising lo-fi dub reggae remix of a Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan number that actually beats the original. As with all the recent Rough Guide compilations, this is made even more enticing by the inclusion of a bonus cd, the Rough Guide to the Sufi Fakirs of Bengal, which has never before been available outside India. Literally a trip back in time, it’s a mixture of the blissful and the wary, with lute, flute, percussion and layers of vocals from a rotating cast of singers.