Love In Exile (Arooj Aftab, Vijay Iyer and Shahzad Ismaily)
Great American Music Hall, San Francisco
September 21, 2023
Photos by Tyler King
Where does one artist end and another begin? This was the question that I was asking myself watching Aroof Aftab, Vijay Iyer, and Shahzad Ismaily perform as Love In Exile at the Great American Music Hall. The question drew stronger as the show continued, and I’ve been thinking about it ever since.
Let me explain. The three musicians are all masters on their instruments of choice. Arooj Aftab is a Grammy-winning singer whose 2021 album Vulture Prince was my favorite of that year. Vijay Iyer is a Grammy-nominated pianist who is a professor at Harvard. Shahzad Ismaily is a multi-instrumentalist who has performed on over 300 albums (performing for Love In Exile, he plays electric bass and a Moog Rogue synthesizer). The three of them released the album Love In Exile earlier this year, and it has quickly became one of my most-played albums of 2023.
The music that these three make together could be described as ambient and jazz, all tied up with a bow made of the Arabic genre of music and lyricism of ghazal. I struggle to accurately describe what it was that I witnessed because, like I said at the beginning of this article, it is very hard for me to pick out just where the music of one of them ended and the music of the others began.
Obviously Arooj Aftab was the singer, but you could tell as she sang that she was paying attention to the playing of Vijay and Shahzad, as if mentally deciphering when to begin and end singing. Arooj’s voice was the anchor, keeping the playing of both Vijay and Shahzad grounded momentarily while she sang. Once she would take a break and step back from the microphone, that anchor was gone, and the other two were allowed to explore more freely on their instruments. Vijay played a grand piano and what sounded like a Fender Rhodes, switching between the two song-to-song, or even during the same one. During the middle of the set, when Shahzad switched from playing his Fender electric bass to the Moog Rogue, it was even more difficult to determine just what frequencies were emanating from his playing and from Vijay’s.
There is definitely a sense of melancholy that ran through the music. At one point between songs, Arooj made mention that everyone in the venue were “sad motherfuckers.” And even though the audience did respond to that remark by laughing, it felt accurate. There were definite moments of beauty throughout the show: Vijay played some truly moving piano parts, and Arooj’s voice is in and of itself one of the most beautiful sounds I’ve ever heard. But then there were moments at the end of the fourth song where Shahzad was creating crashing, pulsing walls of noise with the synthesizer, its reverberations shaking the venue; Vijay’s piano-playing, once bright and gentle, now reaching levels of the avant-garde, the notes discordant and harsh.
Arooj said at one point during the show that she doesn’t think that the three of them will do another album together. If not, then yes, I admit that it’s a shame, but it also makes me appreciate the performance that I saw all the more. To know that I may never again see these three sharing a stage and playing together makes me hold onto the memory of the show all the more dearly. Even now, only a couple of days later, when I think back to seeing Love In Exile live, it isn’t a specific moment from the show that I latch onto, but a feeling of transcendence and an appreciation of the power of live music. I will forever be in awe of these three masters working together so seamlessly, and I feel fortunate to have been able to see them together, even just once.