Exhilarating jazz, spoken word take off in airport setting

Boston Globe, March 28, 2005

AMHERST—For all the talk about the emergence of global culture, art that successfully explores the emotional content of globalization remains rare. “In What Language?,” a project of jazz pianist Vijay Iyer and writer, producer, and performer Mike Ladd, is a triumph of a genre that doesn’t yet exist. The 80-minute “song cycle” of human lives caught up in globalization’s swirl is a model of what makes good art connect: It is aggressively ambitious yet unfailingly accessible and deeply empathetic.

The CD version of “In What Language?” was one of last year’s best new releases, a forward-looking jazz hybrid with a global hip-hop sensibility. But as a large audience at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst’s Fine Arts Center discovered Thursday evening, the project achieves its fullest impact as a multimedia stage piece. Eleven musicians and vocalists improvise to Iyer’s composition and Ladd’s libretto in front of a huge screen flickering with images of airports and the activities that take place there.

Iyer is one of the most exciting new voices in jazz, as comfortable with fragmented and spliced electronic production as he is with straight-ahead phrasings. He’s assembled a group of kindred spirits, mainly from the New York scene, including saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa and an extraordinary cellist, Okkyung Lee. As befits the airport theme, the sound proceeds in gaps and rushes, reflective at points and at others exhilarating, particularly when Iyer drives his hypnotic piano chords to crescendo.

Ladd, who was raised in Boston and attended Hampshire College, is the sort of polymath poet who gives “spoken word” a good name. He and fellow vocalists Latasha Diggs, Allison Easter, and Rizwan Mirza, whose precise facial movements recalled the elegance of Indian classical dance, assume a series of identities: the South Asian cab driver, the Senegalese vendor, the Iraqi businessman, the Jamaican woman who operates the airport X-ray machine.

The characters are poignant and full of humor, never caricatures, a completely believable lens onto what the authors call the “hyphenated perspectives” of our time. This honesty, most of all, is what distinguishes the project and allows it to sidestep all the cliches that globalization usually evokes. Iyer and Ladd call their project “not just a collection of travelers’ tales… . It is our attempt to make sense of the tumultuous world around us.” For all the dislocation they portray migration, exile, deportation their outlook is optimistic, even exciting.