New trio Love In Exile is a manifestation of musical telepathy On their debut album, the improvisational supergroup — singer Arooj Aftab, pianist Vijay Iyer and bassist Shahzad Ismaily — try to answer a musical riddle: What does listening sound like?

New trio Love In Exile is a manifestation of musical telepathy

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In 2018, at a small venue in New York's West Village, three musicians who'd never played together got on stage for a gig.

AROOJ AFTAB: The room was really charged. Even before we had played, like, there was already, like, a feeling of needing to say something to the audience about what this is about to be.

FLORIDO: Arooj Aftab is a Grammy-winning singer and composer. That night, she was joined by composers Vijay Iyer and Shahzad Ismaily. Aftab didn't know what she would say to the audience. The trio had never even rehearsed. But Aftab, who is Pakistani, found herself trying to explain the intention behind the music - to reflect on leaving one's home and finding meaning and belonging along the way. She used the phrase love in exile.

AFTAB: And luckily, Vijay remembered that.

VIJAY IYER: (Laughter).

AFTAB: So it's a great title for the record 'cause I certainly do not remember anything that I had said...

IYER: (Laughter).

AFTAB: ...In that moment.

FLORIDO: The three of them started calling their group Love In Exile, and now that's also the title of their new album.


AFTAB: (Singing in non-English language).

FLORIDO: Nate Chinen from WRTI in Philadelphia sat down with the band to hear how their sound grew out of that one night in 2018. Here's composer Vijay Iyer.

IYER: I think the best bands begin with a feeling. You know, it's sort of this feeling like this has to keep happening, and that's basically how we felt after that. I remember when we were coming offstage, Shahzad just held us together and, like, literally put his arms around us.


AFTAB: (Singing in non-English language).

NATE CHINEN, BYLINE: And how does the play of wide-open improvisational texture and, like, traditional elements and, you know, folk elements - like, what is the play of that in this group? Because it strikes me as really organic but also, like, very considered.

AFTAB: Yeah, you would think that it's all ambient and there's a lot of space and we're just sort of, like, new-aging it, you know?

IYER: (Laughter).

AFTAB: It's very - if you listen, it's very tight. It's super knit together, and I think that comes from just, like, our experience as composers over so many decades. And just ears are really open, and that capability to just, like, lead and follow each other and - you know, and keeping it so contextual instead of just - it's not a free jam. It's succinct ideas that kind of lead into another idea. And then at some point we're like, OK, we're kind of done, and now we're just noodling. And so we kind of - it's like, we wrap it up to...

IYER: (Laughter).

AFTAB: ...You know, know it's solid.

SHAHZAD ISMAILY: And I'd say when you're talking about the varied impulses or the varied textural spaces of a language, words from a cultural space or musical choices, what I imagine to be behind that is the initial human impulse to make sound. Like, if - I, often, in a romanticized way, think about what it was like 20,000 years ago when sound - when we were making sound together. If we pull back and the three of us tap into that impulse, then we're on the same track regardless of what clothing we're wearing musically in the moment.


AFTAB: (Singing in non-English language).

CHINEN: Let's talk about the lyrics on the album. I'd love an example of a piece in which what you're singing comes out of what's happening musically or...

AFTAB: So, like, I wanted to be an instrument, too, which is, like, a really cheesy thing that vocalists say from time to time. And it just doesn't really go anywhere because you just can't be an instrument. You're the vocalist. You know, it just doesn't work that way. But when you're scatting, you know, you can scratch that surface a little bit. I'm saying lots of random fragments of things because I'm trying to just use them as vowels to really just sing, so I kind of, on this project, cringe when people are like, what are the - what's the translation of the lyrics?

IYER: (Laughter).

CHINEN: Right.

AFTAB: I'm just like, no - because then it's going to be about that, you know?

CHINEN: Yeah, yeah.

AFTAB: But I will say that of course I'm not a monster, so, like, whatever I'm - whatever we're playing, like, I'm feeling it, and I am saying stuff that is - it's not disconnected. So for example, "Shadow Forces," I'm actually singing a Reshma tune, you know, which is in Punjabi. Again, it's like fragments, you know? So it felt kind of shadowy and kind of dark, and then there's always, like, the dark juxtaposed with the bright moment in many of the pieces. It's not ever just one color.


AFTAB: (Singing in non-English language).

And so the freedom to kind of put different phrases from different poems and different pieces together is what's happening on the record lyrically for me.

IYER: I often ask students - I kind of use it as this, like, Zen koan or something, which is, what does listening sound like? But that is actually what it sounds like. When Arooj isn't singing, she's listening. And when she is singing, she's listening. And I think that's the thing that we're all - what makes it work is the quality of listening.

AFTAB: When I'm not singing, I'm usually also just drinking wine.

CHINEN: Throwing roses around.


CHINEN: I'll float one more question, which has to do with the life of this group after this music is out in the world. Are you using this material as kind of the springboard at this point, or is it a document and you've kind of moved on to exploring other areas?

ISMAILY: I hope to see us continue to perform all of the upcoming concerts with nothing prepared whatsoever and no relationship to the recorded material because what has been inspiring thus far for me has been walking out and listening and giving. I don't know what will come because I imagine - check in with ourselves as the year unfolds and see - will we all walk away from each other, towards each other, towards something else? And we'll see.

IYER: I think it's the sort of thing that can be made, remade, unmade. I think the main thing is that we want it to stay alive - you know? - alive to us.

CHINEN: And bracing yourself for audiences yelling, just play the hits.

IYER: The hits (laughter) - play that 14-minute hit.


AFTAB: Yeah, yeah. That's exactly what - we don't know what's going to happen. We don't know what the - yeah, maybe the audience will get really attached to the record and will expect us to play it. Yeah, I definitely don't think we're going to formalize them as songs and just go and play those. That sounds really scary.


IYER: I mean, I think the main thing about it is that this album kind of offers a place to be for a while, so we're just going to go back to that place every time. If we think about it that way, then we already have the answer.


FLORIDO: That was Vijay Iyer, Shahzad Ismaily and Arooj Aftab speaking with Nate Chinen of WRTI about their new album, "Love In Exile."

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