Love in Exile featuring Arooj Aftab
Shahzad Ismaily, Vijay Iyer, and Arooj Aftab make up Love in Exile; courtesy of Strathmore Music Center

What happens when MacArthur Award-winning jazz pianist Vijay Iyer invites Grammy-winning neo-Sufi vocalist Arooj Aftab and multi-instrumentalist Shahzad Ismaily to improvise together on a live music project? You get Love in Exile, playing at the Strathmore this April. Aftab, a Pakistani artist living in Brooklyn, coined the phrase, inspiring the Harlem-based Indian pianist Iyer to bestow that name on the trio’s live effort. (Ismaily is Pakistani American and also Brooklyn-based; he’s worked with the likes of Lou Reed and Laurie Anderson.) The trio first played live for 45 minutes in 2018, and Ismaily was so wowed by the experience he easily convinced the other two to do it again. They’ve performed together since and will be releasing an album together this March 23. Aftab tells City Paper that the work is “quite experimental. It’s not jazz, but it’s not global music, but it’s not rock, but it is kind of pushing the envelope musically.” Video of some of their gigs show Aftab stretching out Urdu phrases or singing in short, repeated ones in a melancholy manner over a minimalistic, slow-tempoed instrumental bottom. At times, Iyer’s fingerwork on the piano and his electronic gadgets combine with Ismaily’s bass and subtle Moog intonations to create a moody, avant-classical atmosphere with South Asian and Steve Reich-inspired repetition. At other times Iyer shifts more rapidly between noisier and sedate piano playing with Ismaily’s bass getting louder. Aftab insists that her vocals are meant to be another instrument here and are not to convey lyrical storytelling. However, she says, the music “feels like somebody’s life, it has these really deep … moments, and then it has these kinds of big crescendos, and it has sort of quieter, gentle things.” Love in Exile, featuring Arooj Aftab, Vijay Iyer, and Shahzad Ismaily, perform at 8 p.m. on April 14 at the Strathmore Music Center in North Bethesda. $28–$68.