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Album Review

Vijay Iyer & Mike Ladd: InWhatStrumentals


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Vijay Iyer & Mike Ladd: InWhatStrumentals
In 2003 Vijay Iyer and Mike Ladd released In What Language?, a hybrid jazz/hip hop response to post-9/11 American paranoia. Inspired by many related injustices, the inflection point was the extended detention, handcuffing and humiliation of a prominent Iranian filmmaker passing through JFK International Airport. Seventeen years later America was mired in multiple unprecedented crises, giving cause to repurpose that album. Iyer and Ladd had the instrumental masters from 2003, and release them here as InWhatStrumentals: Music from In What Language?.

The Boston born, Paris-based Ladd has co-led three albums with Iyer and has also recorded with Jeff Parker and Tyshawn Sorey. Primarily known as a poet, spoken word & hip hop artist, he is also a producer, programmer and synthesizer artist. He studied with the critically acclaimed poet, essayist and literary critic Robert Pinksy while attending Boston University for his Master's Degree. Ladd has identified Pinsky as a Jazz Poet, and Ladd's rhythm and sense of improvisation have validated the title through his past work with Iyer.

"The Color of My Circumference I," III, IV, and "Asylum" are examples of how well the music stands on its own, maintaining the dream-like musing of the original pieces. "DeGaulle," even lacking the mesmerizing reading from Allison Easter, is remarkable. In this instrumental version Rudresh Mahanthappa's alto saxophone, Ambrose Akinmusire's trumpet, and the bass of Stephan Crump, stand out crisply. Likewise, Iyer, Crump, and drummer Trevor Holder give new life to "Iraqi Businessman," the disturbing and violent Ajay Naidu narration now stripped away. Only "Innana After Bagdad" is left off InWhatStrumentals owing to its origin as a spoken-word piece with a smattering of electronic embellishment. The closing track, "Plastic Bag," is strikingly appealing in instrumental form, Iyer's thoughtful rhythm and Dana Leong's cello intoning a deep, moving sadness.

The airport (any major U.S. transportation hub will do) was a focal point of In What Language?, a prominent, movable character in each vignette of social inequality and institutional vigilantism. Much of the power of the source material was in its penetrating, evocative narrative set to strikingly hypnotic music. While still inspiring, without that poetic context InWhatStrumentals leaves an altogether different impression. Put that aside and the music is engaging on its own, by turns, stark, menacing, melodic. Iyer's playing is slightly less complex than his trademark style; here it has been perceptively thought out to fuse with Ladd's poetry. Listening to side-by-side comparisons of In What Language? and InWhatStrumentals is a rewarding experience but, separately, both albums stand out as significant achievements.

From the liner notes: "All proceeds from sales InWhatStrumentals will support immigrant groups and communities of color disproportionately affected by COVID-19."

Track Listing

The Color of My Circumference I; The Density of the 19th Century; Terminal City; Rentals; Security; DeGaulle; TLC; Three Lotto Stories; The Color of My Circumference II; Iraqi Businessman; Taking Back the Airplane; The Color of My Circumference III; In What Language; Asylum; The Color of My Circumference IV; Plastic Bag.


Additional Instrumentation

Vijay Iyer: keyboards, Fender Rhodes, programming; Mike Ladd: EMS Synth, programming; Dana Leong: trombone, flugelhorn.

Album information

Title: InWhatStrumentals | Year Released: 2020 | Record Label: Pi Recordings

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