[9 December 2013]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
The shadow cast by September 11, 2001 has been one of uncertainty. From the very day of the attacks, Americans have been very confused about almost everything. For a brief while, most citizens didn’t know who had attacked us or why. As our military prepared to invade two countries, we just had to take military intelligence and our federal government on their word that it was the right thing to do. Regimes fought and crumbled while pockets of resistance were flaring up overseas. Pockets of protest popped up stateside. The War on Terror always had a heavy black cloud hanging overhead, omnipresent to anyone who watched, listen to, or read the news. Did we just strike a friend or a foe? Did we really achieve these victories? What was our standing on the international stage? Have the repercussions of Abu Ghraib really hit yet? How long before the whole thing will be over? Will it ever be over? After all, according to author Sam Harris, declaring war on terror is like declaring war on murder. This tells us that twenty-first century America’s main battle is against a concept. The enemy entities may be fuzzy but the nightmares still run deep.
So if there’s one silver lining these uncertainties can give us, it’s a cathartic set of stories. Jazz pianist Vijay Iyer and hip-hop artist Mike Ladd have been rooting around post-9/11 American in search of a thread, a narrative that puts our paranoia in a constructive context. Touched off by an incident where an Iranian filmmaker was wrongly detained at an American airport, Iyer and Ladd constructed and released In What Language? in 2003, probably one of the scariest jazz albums you’ll ever have to hear. After that, the stories kept coming. In 2007, the duo released Still Life with Commentator and have now released a third installment with Holding It Down: The Veterans’ Dreams Project. Like its two predecessors, this album continues the challenge of Ladd adapting the stories to his rap and/or spoken word performances while Iyer sculpts the eerie backdrops. But as the title suggests, they tackle the dreams of servicemen and servicewomen this time around. And you don’t need me to tell you that dreams can be messy business. They can be vague and abstract, or they can be vivid and believable. Sometimes a dream can be all of these at once. Throw in some wartime PTSD, and you don’t know what you’re going to get.
The dreams of the vets are written down in the liner notes, just as if they were lyrics in a pop-rock release. They may not be the contributor’s exact words verbatim since Mike Ladd retooled their words to fit the jazz/spoken word format, but it’s hard to imagine Ladd taking too many liberties here. He receives help from Maurice Decaul and Lynn Hill, two poets who were recently in the armed forces and wanted a chance to tell their stories directly. Iyer’s band is a pretty hefty one, one that gets vocal aid from Pamela Z and Guillermo E. Brown. Okkyung Lee bows a vital cello, Kassa Overall holds everything together on the drums, and none other than the mighty Liberty Ellman provides guitar. The resulting sound is like listening to the idea of foundation itself. When Overall and Iyer are together, the music is as unshakable as a soldier’s nightmare. “Derelict Poetry” is a perfect example of the band’s rhythmic lockdown. Maurice Decaul’s dream finds him coming and going, his very identity becoming a moving target. The first verse sounds like absent roll-call: “Maurice Emerson Decaul is not here / That foolish man stayed in Iraq / He likes it there.” But at the start of the second verse, he’s no longer alive; “Maurice Emerson Decaul is dead! / I lied, he died six years ago / Today.” Vijay Iyer bounces from one chord to its relative minor and then back again, haunting the ever ebbing and flowing of Decaul as he fails to pin down his own self in his dream.
Musically, Iyer and his band can take stabs at all sorts of styles. “Requiem for an Insomniac” has a little less to do with jazz and more to do with urban beats and electronic vamps. The music to the drug-infested “REM Killer”, celebrating all the unpleasant ways in which a PTSD sufferer can get some sleep, borders on gut-slipping post-rock. “Capacity” is a hip-hop beat just waiting for a rap that never comes. Instead, it’s Lynn Hill’s tale of piloting drones and the feelings of guilt that seep over into her sleep. “Patton” manages to spin some new-age into a heavily syncopated jazz beat where Iyer hammers a very deep note with his left hand over and over again. A boy and his brother are always on the alert in their play-combat. “Don’t ask me why but it’s always Nazis” begins Calvin from Massapequa, NY.
Holding It Down: The Veterans’ Dreams Project‘s biggest musical diversion is saved for last, “Mess Hall”. I can only suppose that the resulting vocals are the work of Pamela Z since she is credited with “vocals with live processing, composition”. Merrin from San Diego recounts a mundane trip to the chow line, but the music is anything but mundane. The word “Home” is intoned again and again like a mantra as high-pitched gibberish multiplies and hovers below the mix a la Joan La Barbara. A spoken word passage mentions “gouged out lasagna” and “the entrails of yakisoba”. Heavily processed voices sing the final incantation “All of my short life / I could build a bridge home”.
Holding It Down: The Veterans’ Dreams Project is another one of those releases that can probably be disqualified as a jazz album within certain circles. But finding reasons to keep it away from a jazz-related press and audience is a fool’s errand. Holding It Down is not about Vijay Iyer’s musicianship and mood conjuring. It’s not about Mike Ladd’s poetry. It’s not about the inventive band behind the music. It’s about veterans returning home and not fitting in. It’s about lying down to sleep and waking up to combat. It’s about giving a voice to those who are actually walking around with stories in their heads.