Now based in Brooklyn, the superb singer and composer Arooj Aftab spent her younger years in Pakistan absorbing Hindustani classical and South Asian folk before delving into jazz and the minimalist music of Terry Riley at the Berklee College of Music in Boston. Those rich influences and many others mingle with personal grief to utterly disarming effect on Vulture Prince. Aftab’s third and most widely acclaimed record, it was released by the pacesetting new music label New Amsterdam in April. It represents a return to the song and poetry of Aftab’s debut, Bird Under Water, after the adept ambient excursion Siren Islands, which landed a song on The New York Times’ “25 Best Classical Music Tracks of 2018” list.
As Aftab told NPR, she had an “edgier, more fun” follow-up album in mind, but the death of her younger brother and the rise of the pandemic changed her course. She found a voice for her anguish in the longing couplets of Urdu ghazals, among other poetic forms, and sunk them into airy, crystalline compositions that ripple with rhythm even though Jamey Haddad’s hand percussion verges on the subliminal. The exception that proves the rule is “Last Night,” a Rumi poem set to a reggae sizzle that radiates like a sunburst in the deep, still center of the album.
Performed with a band of sought-after players from the jazz and contemporary classical worlds, including acoustic guitarist Gyan Riley, harpist Maeve Gilchrist, violinist Darian Donovan Thomas, and keyboardist Shahzad Ismaily, Vulture Prince was called Aftab’s “most cogent, clear-eyed statement yet” by Bandcamp Daily, while Pitchfork dubbed it “a heartbreaking, exquisite document of the journey from grief to acceptance.”