New Voices from Vijay Iyer & Mike Ladd

This week, the latest collaboration of Vijay Iyer and Mike Ladd takes to the stage in New York. It’s called “Holding It Down: The Veterans’ Dreams Project,” and it’s premiering Sept. 19-22 at the Harlem Stage Gatehouse in New York.

That’s a long way from home for me, so I’ll miss the show. But it’s exciting to know that Iyer’s music and Ladd’s poetry have come together again.

Their first collaboration, In What Language? (Pi, 2003) blew me away. It was a song cycle (a concept album without a storyline) about traveling and the globalized society. Its settings were gargantuan, anonymous airports whose comfortable fluorescent-lit lounges hid Kafkaesque nests; its characters, black- and brown-skinned people of varying backgrounds and purposes.

Iyer and Ladd’s vision of this modern crossroads bustles with intensity and excitement, but also with sadness and isolation and dread. Generous sprinklings of electronics, mixed with acoustic jazz, gave the album a 21st-century feel, a kinetic global village, with the earth’s many corners represented by vocalists ranging from polished singers to downtrodden amateur speakers in a panoply of accents. Ladd’s frequent appearances provide a kind of home base, or a familiar hub.

It was timely and honest and a little big angry — and it was inspired by an incident that happened before 9/11. When the album arrived two years later, the wound was still fresh and the United States still thick with a lingering dread as the overfed cowboy fantasies of the patriotically correct triumphed over freedom and reason. The political climate primed the album with a fresh intensity. Yet the album, while clearly shouting out, comes across as less a protest and more a catharsis, an expression of confusion, fear, and wonder over a societal tilt still in motion.

My favorite moment on the album comes near the end, during “The Color of My Circumference IV,” a defiant piece with Ladd ricocheting madly against Trevor Holder’s propulsive drumming and Iyer’s bright, fierce piano chords of glass and steel: “From under an officer’s boot in Union Square / I once saw the curve of the earth. Lines shot out / Around the globe from where my eye met the street…”

Their next project was Still Life With Commentator (Savoy, 2007), a set of musings about TV, the news, and the Web and how it all affects us. More observational than judgmental, Still Life reflected the uncertainty stirred up by the sudden, undirected evolution of media — both the drunkard’s walk of the blogosphere and the tight-shut orbit of Fox News. It’s the opening salvo in what should be an ongoing debate about the nature of media and even of information.

I got to see Still Live performed at Stanford (with less elaborate staging than the New York version) and enjoyed it. An R&B turn during “John Stewart on Crossfire,” where the band sang the refrain, “Please stop / You’re hurting America,” felt a little awkward, and the topic overall didn’t feel as challenging as on In What Language — probably because personal tragedy and misery was less of a factor. But I did like it, and I think the CD is a good listen — and I think both projects presented topic that are important for all of us, particularly in the United States, to discuss and digest.

With Holding It Down, Iyer and Ladd again tap contemporary events, this time focusing on the veterans of Afghanistan and Iraq. Again, no immediate answers, just a framing of the questions.

Maybe. That’s guesswork on my part. Here’s the official word, from a Harlem Stage brochure:

Holding It Down is a thought-provoking, sometimes harrowing, and ultimately exhilarating combination of music, poetry and song, woven from the actual dreams of young American veterans of color of the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars. Poet Mike Ladd’s lyric adaptiations juxtaposed by the first-person poetic contributions of U.S. veterans Maurice Decaul and Lynn Hill,along with Vijay Iyer’s wide-ranging original music and poignant video explores veterans’ internal battle with the psychological remnants of war, and their struggles to achieve dignity in an atmosphere of public indifference and widespread disillusionment.

Personnel for the show:

  • Vijay Iyer (piano, laptop)
  • Mike Ladd (poetry, vocals, sampler, analog synthesizer)
  • Maurice Decaul (poetry)
  • Lynn Hill (poetry)
  • Guillermo E. Brown (vocals, electronics)
  • Liberty Ellman (guitar)
  • Okkyung Lee (cello)
  • Kassa Overall (percussion)
  • Latasha N. Nevada Diggs (vocals, live electronic processing)

If you happen to see it, I’d love to hear what you thought.

2 thoughts on “New Voices from Vijay Iyer & Mike Ladd

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