Review: ‘Love in Exile’ shows the beauty in collaborating to create something new

Arooj Aftab, Shahzad Ismaily and Vijay Iyer’s collaborative album exhibits success in its simplicity.

by Jack Jervis | 4/17/23 2:00am

by Elaine Pu / The Dartmouth

Pakistani-American singer Arooj Aftab's new album “Love in Exile,” released in March, is an atmospheric jazz record that challenges the boundaries of genre through its simplicity. Collaborative in nature, the album features composer and pianist Vijay Iyer and multi-instrumentalist Shahzad Ismaily. On each of the album’s seven tracks, the artists primarily stick to their strengths  — with Aftab on vocals, Iyer on piano and Ismaily on bass — yet the final product achieves an effortlessly synchronous sound.

Aftab has had a successful career as a vocalist since the 2010s, though her popularity has grown more recently due to her music’s increased social media presence and her Grammy win in 2022 for Best Global Music Performance. Though Aftab played with pop songs at the beginning of her career , her recent projects have expanded into different, more experimental sounds within jazz. “Love in Exile” is no exception and reveals a whole new dimension of her talent.

In a recent interview with NPR, Aftab spoke about how she works with Iyer and Ismaily to make music, citing “the ability to lead and follow one another” as a vital element of their creative process. While many musicians treat vocals as the foreground and instrumentals as the background, “Love in Exile” utilizes Aftab’s vocals as an instrument itself. Her voice does not diminish or overpower any song but often perfectly blends with the other instruments, allowing Ismaily and Iyer’s contributions to shine through.

There is no better example of the trio’s collaborative ability than on the opening track, “To Remain/To Return.” Ismaily begins this nine-minute track with eerie, twinkling synths that pulsate over the first few minutes to create a sonic fog. Iyer contrasts this sound with a piano line that screams of hope and power. Rounding out the sound, Aftab’s voice pierces the instrumental storm. Her voice compliments the tone of the piano as she sings of rebellion in the Urdu language, though the power dynamic between Aftab’s voice and other instrumentals shifts constantly. The end of the song sees Iyer’s piano take over until it finally fades, leaving the listener with the same bass and synth beat as the start. 

“Shadow Forces” may be the darkest track on the album. From the beginning, a shadowy bass and piano line leads the track, which evolves into a completely new sound in the second half. The foundation of the album is represented by this song: any potential vacant space is filled with new ideas that remain creative and fresh as they evolve. 

The next track “Sanji” represents the calm after the eerie storm that was “Shadow Forces.” Here, Ismaily lays down a serene bassline that the rest of the song floats around. High-pitched, twinkling piano notes add to the song’s serenity, and Iyer is given ample time to shine in his solo segments. Iyer utilizes repetition nicely, often staying on the same note while still capturing the audience as he changes rhythm or adds slight pitch variations.

While each group member receives dedicated chunks of time for solo efforts, improvisation is not as common as one may think. In an interview with NPR, Aftab said, “It’s not a free jam, it’s the synched ideas that kind of lead into another idea, and then at some point, we’re like, ‘Okay we’re kinda done here,’ and now we’re just noodling.” Despite containing natural improvisation, each solo on “Love is Exile” is very intentional and planned. Not once does any artist use their solo time to take over, rather, it is an opportunity to test different dynamics.

On other jazz albums, soloists often attempt to impress with grand displays of technical prowess. While this can create exciting and incredibly captivating music — think Kamasi Washington’s mind blowing soloing ability — collaborators become overshadowed. “Love in Exile” vehemently rejects this norm of mainstream contemporary jazz and has achieved just as much success. The album is unique in that it transforms the solo into another form of collaboration. 

This type of collaboration is not common in popular music. In 2013, for example, Big Sean released a song called “Control” which featured Kendrick Lamar. On this song, Lamar released a feature so aggressive that it changed the rap genre entirely. He dissed countless other artists, including Big Sean on his own song, which encouraged other artists to be cutthroat in their collaborations. “Love in Exile” is the antithesis of this. Instead of cutthroat competition fueling talent, the lack of competition is one of the main reasons this album runs as smoothly as it does. The connection between Aftab, Ismaily and Iyer is seamless, and their art reflects this. 

Towards the end of the tracklist, the trio puts a focus on droning sound. The outro to “Eyes of the Endless” prioritizes droning synths and bass and may be my favorite stretch in the album. After a moment of emphasis on  Aftab’s voice accompanied by light, bouncy keys, Ismaily then heads an outro that is an almost four-minute crescendo. Ismaily knocks this out of the park — starting with a low bass that quietly repeats throughout this section, getting louder and louder until it takes the lead. Although the crescendo is not incredibly loud, it feels immensely powerful to the listener.  “Sharabi,” with its staticy synth line that dominates the instrumental landscape, creates one of the most unique listening experiences on the album thus far. It somehow manages to fit into the rest of the album while also challenging our definition of “jazz” the most. 

“Love in Exile” is a fantastic album that pushes the boundaries of what a jazz album can be. It rejects common notions, plays with uncomfortable sounds and remains beautiful throughout. Aftab, Iyer and Ismaily do not need to push for their talents to be apparent; their seamless collaboration and creativity is the selling point of the album. This is my album of the year thus far in what is already a strong start to 2023’s musical outputs.

Rating: ★★★★★