Pianist and composer Vijay Iyer cut five albums in 2010 in various ensemble and solo settings. He was also was nominated for a Grammy for 2009's stellar Historicity. To kick off 2011, Iyer releases the much-anticipated Tirtha project; the debut recording of a new band that came together for the first time in 2007. Tirtha features Iyer on piano, virtuoso Nitin Mitta on tablas, and guitarist-composer Prasanna. Together they engage in a triangular dialogue between modern creative jazz, Hindustani (north-Indian classical) and Carnatic (south-Indian classical) music. What Tirtha's music is not, is mere jazz exotica or "fusion." What takes place along composed and improvised lines is a deep communication from the various places where these musics meet and diverge. The players engage one another through familiar and new harmonic ideas in spirited counterpoint, seamless dissonance, and complex lyric invention, all incorporated in a polyrhythmic language. Iyer and Mitta introduce "Duality" with a mysterious melodic statement before the pianist delves into a dense exploration of chordal harmonics that Prasanna answers minimally at first, then in an ever more detailed, complex fashion. Mitta's tablas are the constant: he bridges the dialogue on the changes in various tones and tempi, turning the entire work into an exercise in modal telepathy. "Tribal Wisdom," the album's longest piece, opens with a voice, tabla, and handclaps introducing what will most certainly become one of the most exciting explorations in polyrhythm, counterpoint, and elegance on the disc. "Abundance" is a more languid affair, with gorgeous changes and Iyer's piano holding court in a complex, midtempo ballad enhanced by Prasanna's silky comping. "Polytheism" employs rhythm as an anchor in a contrapuntal apreggiatic study that never loses its groove; the dialogue between piano and guitar is fluid and expansive. The set closes with the hauntingly beautiful "Entropy and Time," a gorgeous, quietly moving piece that displays Mitta's amazing gift of enhancing an already luxuriant lyricism with his complete mastery of the tonal possibilities of his instrument. Prasanna uses his guitar more like a sitar in creating an assertive melodic statement as Iyer responds to him ethereally in the middle register. Tirtha is a triumph; it is a high-water mark in hearing the constantly evolving discussion between jazz and Indian music.
AllMusic Review by Thom Jurek