The Sanskrit word "tirtha" (THEER-tha), literally 'crossing' or 'shallow passage of a stream,' denotes a place of pilgrimage near sacred waters. It suggests a liminal space between the fixed and the fluid, a threshold between worlds.
"Jazz" and "Indian music" are two imperfect labels for massive systems of information, archives of knowledge, zones of activity, fields of possibility. These traditions are "as wide as all outdoors," to borrow Julius Hemphill's phrase; they both embody the great legacies of their respective heritages, and yet they have spanned the globe, evolving and adapting, constantly heralding things to come.
It's no secret that the two histories have intersected many times already. Tirtha is the latest in a series of such tirthas (crossings). But it also represents a unity that only recently became possible, after several decades of South Asian global mobility, transition, and flow.
Vijay Iyer is a very involved and prolific American jazz pianist, working in several groups as well as solo. Tirtha is his first album with collaborative partners Prasanna, a guitarist-composer, and tabla player Nitin Mitta. The band formed in response to an invitation. In 2007, Iyer was asked to put together a concert celebrating 60 years of Indian independence. He wanted to steer clear of fusion experiments that attempted to mix styles - to "create something," as John Coltrane famously admonished, "more with labels, you see, than true evolution." Prasanna and Nitin Mitta, two outstanding musicians from India who have settled in the states, had been traveling alongside Iyer. The trio had never collaborated before, but of their first rehearsal Iyer says, "We felt a jolt of recognition. There was no question of 'fusion,' no compromise, no attempt to sound more or less 'Indian'; just a fluid musican conversation among three individuals, an atmosphere of camaraderie, a sense of beginning.'"