Tirtha – Tirtha – ACT Music + Vision 9503, 60:31 ****:
(Vijay Iyer – piano; Prasanna – guitar, voice; Nitin Mitta – tabla)
Pianist Vijay Iyer has merged South Asian and Indian musical elements into his releases before but never to the full extent which he has done with his new trio project, Tirtha (pronounced THEER-tha), a collaboration with electric guitarist Prasanna and tabla player Nitin Mitta. The combination of Indian motifs with jazz has been around for decades, with examples such as John McLaughlin’s Shakti and the 2008 interpretative Miles Davis tribute Miles from India, but Iyer, Prasanna and Mitta take their aspirations to a fresh level.
The three musicians chose an apt name. Tirtha is a Sanskrit word denoting a tapered place in a river which can be easily crossed and also has a spiritual perspective which suggests a holy space close to a large volume of water where daily strains can disappear so a person may pass more effortlessly into a deeper or profounder state of being. The sense of striving for something beyond the norm also suffuses the hour-long Tirtha album.
The genesis for Tirtha’s formation occurred in 2007 when Iyer was asked to put together a concert celebrating 60 years of Indian independence, which he took as a challenge to incorporate Carnatic (South Indian) musical tradition with contemporary inclinations. The concept flowered into reality when Iyer invited Prasanna and Mitta to join him on stage and the ensuing result is the trio’s self-titled, nine-track effort.
It is obvious from the opening piece to the concluding number this is a band with ideas. The first cut, the jazz/Indian fusion tune “Duality,” has a minimalist accent strengthened by Mitta’s concerted tabla and the correspondingly complex rhythms Iyer presents on the piano’s lower keys, but at the same time “Duality” has a Monk-like quality due to an angular harmony laid out via Iyer’s keyboard and Prasanna’s microtonal guitar chords.
The longest composition is Prasanna’s multilayered “Tribal Wisdom,” which starts with Prasanna’s traditional Carnatic vocal intonations, then Iyer’s jazz harmonies and finally Prasanna’s rock-inclined runs. While Mitta provides a groundswell of twisting and increasingly accelerating rhythms, Iyer escalates his free jazz and classical music-oriented contributions while Prasanna wields a sinewy tone closer to John Scofield or a softer Jimi Hendrix. After the tumult dies down, Mitta offers a percussion solo which highlights his melodic touch, spontaneity, meticulous technique and tonal precision. The shortest work, Iyer’s “Gauntlet,” also has a sturdy jazz/rock/Indian synthesis where Prasanna’s piston-like guitar rides on top of Iyer’s cadenced piano with an outcome which sounds similar to early Glenn Branca. The only caveat is it seems to end before it has a chance to develop.
The nuanced ballads are the most luminous material. Iyer’s absorbing and poignant “Abundance” has a Duke Ellington-styled grace with underlying Indian percussive shading. Prasanna – who has an engineering degree – reveals his scientific background with his pastoral, folk-ish “Entropy and Time,” which utilizes the D-scale as a way for the trio to move through several engaging rhythmic – or time – changes while the constantly progressing tune demonstrates there is no entropy, or measureable loss of energy, in Tirtha’s musical universe.
2. Tribal Wisdom
9. Entropy and Time
— Doug Simpson