Winner of the Parliamentary Jazz Award for Best Media, 2019

by Tim Owen

May 16, 2011


This release came as an unexpected pleasure. Prasanna, Mitta and Iyer are incredibly well matched.

Vijay Iyer with Prasanna and Nitin Mitta


(ACT Music ACT 9503-2)

This release came as an unexpected pleasure. In the past I’ve often been a sucker for what, taking Joe Harriott and John Mayers’ lead, one might call ?Indo-Jazz fusion’. From the Harriott/Mayer Double Quintet recordings of that name in the late ?60s, to Bill Laswell’s ?Tabla Beat Science’ projects of the early ?00s, the melodic development of Ragas, the beat metrics of Talas, and the unifying importance of improvisation, have provided occasional inspirational for those jazz musicians seeking to play outside the cultural box. Most, if not all of those projects were fusion experiments instigated by Westerners. Tirtha is different; its music is a unique collective expression rather than an act of cultural transposition or fusion. The groups’ leader, Vijay Iyer (piano), is the son of Indian Tamil immigrants to the US, while both of his colleagues, R. Prasanna (guitar, voice) and Nitin Mitta (tabla ) were born in India; so all three, to varying degrees, have a native familiarity with Indian music.

It has been claimed (on Wikipedia, without citation) that Iyer was exposed to Carnatic (south-Indian classical) music in his youth, but unsurprisingly for someone raised in New York his background is predominantly in western music. Primarily a jazz artist, he is self-taught on piano but has fifteen years of Western classical training on violin to draw upon. Prasanna’s bio is similarly unconventional. He has carved a unique niche by adapting the electric guitar to the art of Carnatic music, and is only the second acknowledged to do so (following the earlier example of Sukumar Prasad): he is also an acclaimed composer and orchestrator of film scores. At around 60 years of age, Prasanna is comfortably the most senior of the trio, while Nitin Mitta, at 36, is the youngest. Mitta has played both as a soloist and as an accompanist at the highest level, primarily in the Hindustani (north-Indian) classical sphere.

My enthusiasm for Iyer has previously been tempered by what I’ve heard (and witnessed) as a starchy, almost imperious formality to his deportment, but this new association of Iyer with Indian classical music, particularly Hindustani music casts him in a new, more sympathetic light. What previously seemed a cold formality in his bearing now looks more like a dignity borne of respect for the traditions he works within, primarily Indian classical but also jazz. Perhaps I’m reading too much into things that are, of course, merely personal impressions; still, I wish I’d heard this album sooner. The sessions were recorded in 2008, well before those for Iyer’s Historicity album, which I referenced here two years ago in a review of Iyer’s appearance at the 2009 London Jazz Festival (see our feature “On the piano trail, London Jazz Festival 2009”) , but they are only now being released.

Prasanna, Mitta and Iyer are incredibly well matched. Prasanna’s electric guitar, which he predominantly plays with a clean tone, allows him to play in a recognisably Carnatic style with liquid grace and fluency; the closest comparison might be with the sound of the sarod. Most other string instruments used for Carnatic music, such as the v?n? or sit?r, produce tones of much more complex resonance. In response, Mitta also must execute rhythmic accompaniment of exceptional clarity, while Iyer finds a wonderful balance between stateliness and lyrical mellifluousness.

Iyer and Prasanna both contribute compositions and the set strikes a wonderful balance between coherence and variety. In the first track, Iyer’s “Duality”, the composer’s commanding style is matched by assertive table accompaniment. When Prasanna solos he expertly shapes pace and tension toward the rapturous, and when Iyer then rejoins the imperious and the ecstatic are held in perfect balance. The pianist’s “Abundance” is contrastingly lyrical and reflective, while Prasanna’s “Tribal Wisdom” begins with his rhythmic vocalizations and a driving chordal accompaniment from Iyer. A piano solo later in the track is searching but self assured, richly embellished by Mitta. A Prasanna solo ends on a high, leaving Mitta to forge a coda of suspended tension, which he concludes with a percussive flourish. Quotation and reference is mostly avoided, though there is the occasional allusion to here a hip hop rhythm in Mitta’s playing, or there a soul inflection from Iyer. Meanwhile Prasanna begins his own “Polytheism” with some uncharacteristically trad-sounding jazz licks, and while his “Entropy and Time” takes T.R. Subramanyam’s pallavi ?Raghukula’ in raga Bilahari as its inspiration, Iyer takes the piece to a more thoroughly European classical ecstatic.

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