Tirtha and the ‘Asian Thing’

Vijay Iyer, Prasanna, Nitin MittaTirtha (ACT, 2011)

Iyer/Prasanna/Mitta -- Tirtha (ACT, 2011)Tirtha is a trio jazz album with Indian influences and a tabla in place of a drum kit. But the composing isn’t overtly “Indian,” and in fact, most of the album follows modern-jazz trajectories. Vijay Iyer’s “steel and glass” sound on piano is intact, and Prasanna’s guitar is a springy, jazzy machine that only occasionally touches on Indian scales.

This is a good thing. I don’t mind hearing albums that mesh jazz and Indian music, but Iyer, Prasanna, and tabla player Nitin Mitta shouldn’t feel obligated to create that kind of hybrid just because their names are Indian.

The band originated with a 2007 concert to celebrate the 60th anniversary of India’s independence. Iyer writes in the liner notes:

Heritage matters to me, but I’ve steered clear of fusion experiments that attempt to mix styles — to “create something,” as John Coltrane famously admonished, ‘more with labels, you see, than true evolution.’ For this event, I hoped to avoid those pitfalls, and perhaps instead offer something a little more personal.”

What speaks to me is that Iyer didn’t feel trapped by any sense of obligation. I’m Japanese-American, but I’m fourth-generation, with a heritage that’s more L.A. than Kyoto. I don’t even enjoy Japanese food that much. I do take interest in Japanese culture, but if I were to write, say, a novel, I don’t know that the characters would come out very Asian at all.

(On an almost related note: I’m reading a novel about Japan, An Artist of the Floating World, by Kazuo Ishiguro. Who translated it? No one — Ishiguro is British. He also wrote Remains of the Day, the very non-Japanese, non-WWII novel whose main character was played by Anthony Hopkins in the movie.)

While Tirtha does not attempt to be “Indian jazz,” it still willingly taps Indian influences. Prasanna’s composition “Tribal Wisdom” has him adding Indian inflections to his guitar work, and it also features a lengthy and stunning tabla solo by Mitta.

“Gauntlet,” though, is a catchy bit of cerebral rock; it has a simple rhythm, but a prog band could have loads of fun with it. “Duality” generously sprinkles Iyer’s piano sound, cascading like hailstones on a sidewalk against the polyrhythms set up by Mitta’s tabla and Prasanna’s small guitar figures.


I bought this album on a whim at a terrific Ashland, Oregon store called The Music Co-Op. It’s a store with jazz and world music sections — real sections, not the kind curated by “meh, whatever” staff members. Economics dictate that they can’t go too deep, but they had Tirtha. I was happy to reward their good taste.