Arooj Aftab, Vijay Iyer & Shahzad Ismaily: “To Remain/To Return”

When Arooj Aftab, Vijay Iyer, and Shahzad Ismaily first shared a stage together in New York in 2018, it became unclear who was leading whom, or even where one musician ended and the next began: “We were like a school of fish,” Aftab marveled. The trio later attempted to recapture that spontaneous magic for their forthcoming album, Love in Exile, by recording live in the studio, reprising roles from that first performance: jazz composer Iyer on piano and electronics; Ismaily, a prolific multi-instrumentalist who has played with Laurie Anderson, Lou Reed, and John Zorn, on bass and Moog synthesizer; and vocalist-composer Aftab singing in Urdu.

The album’s lead track, “To Remain/To Return,” begins as a wash of pure ambience: Synths swirl like a glowing mist, and Iyer and Ismaily tentatively feel out the dimensions of a world they have dreamed into existence, gradually molding texture into melody. When Aftab joins, her voice instantly becomes the music’s focal point, carving its way through the landscape like a slow-moving river. Singing of two people who are forced to part ways—“I will leave but I will also return,” vows one to the other—her voice channels a mixture of longing, mourning, and fear in languid, drawn-out melismas. Then her collaborators’ instruments seem almost to enfold her voice, mirroring her movements as though reassuring that the promised homecoming is not far off. The song feels less like a jam session than a portal to another universe, a small miracle of telepathy occurring across nine spellbinding minutes.