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Vijay Iyer with Prasanna & Nitin Mitta - Tirtha

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Artist: Vijay Iyer with Prasanna & Nitin Mitta

Album: Tirtha

Label: ACT Music

Review date: Mar. 8, 2011

Pianist and composer Vijay Iyer’s new trio project pays homage to several traditions, but in this, it is not unique. All three of his recent recordings for ACT (the others being Historicty and Solo) have inhabited diverse historical and stylistic territory, and all have done so with considerable success. Tirtha continues the exploratory trend with mixed results.

The group features South Indian musicians Prasanna on guitar and Nitin Mitta on tabla. They began performing last year, garnering good reviews along the way. The trio’s eponymous debut album constitutes an attempt to blend elements of Carnatic music with rock and jazz. In this, comparisons with groups like John McLaughlin’s Shakti, in its various incarnations, are inevitable. In fact, Tirtha’s blend may be more of an actual stylistic merger than any heard in Shakti’s catalog, and the results can be satisfying. The accented rhythms Iyer’s left hand punches throughout “Duality”’s jagged harmonies come straight out of Monk, while his right hand, in unison with Prasanna’s micro guitar and bolstered by Mitta’s tabla, brings the South Indian variable to a complex equation. Prasanna also combines beautifully with Iyer on the harmonically intricate title track, Mitta’s tabla only coming to the fore during solos and when the tune accelerates. On the rock front, there’s Prasanna’s “Tribal Wisdom,” where a deep funk underpins the serpentine rhythms Mitta and Iyer lay down.

There are, however, moments that simply do not work. “Polytheism,” the most blatant of these, is a misguided attempt to bring atonality into the mix; while the trio’s rhythmic interplay is fascinating, the tune sounds like late-1940s Lennie Tristano with tabla.

Tirtha is much better in pantonal mode, and the rest of the album demonstrates just how far out they can take harmony and make it all hang together. The concluding track, “Entropy and Time,” shows just about all the possible angles on a D-major scale, as the group runs through daring rhythmic changes with ease and precision.

My only other complaint is harder to articulate. While the album is beautifully recorded, there’s a certain sterility throughout, something approaching caution. Even when things should be exciting, as with the gradual acceleration of the title track, the temperature never reaches boiling point, as it does with Shakti’s best work. Perhaps things might have been different had Iyer chosen to release a live version of Tirtha.

By Marc Medwin

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