Arooj Aftab 2024
Photo: Shreya Dev Dube / Verve Label Group

Arooj Aftab Unleashes Moody, Nocturnal Bliss on ‘Night Reign’

Arooj Aftab’s Night Reign is filled with dark, mysterious corners and an intoxicating blend of jazz and her Pakistani roots with stunning results.

Night Reign
Arooj Aftab
31 May 2024

In the liner notes for Night Reign, Lynnée Denise writes: “Some songs can only be heard at night – lunar lyrics for evening ears. It’s the songs of the night that stand us tall in the day, eyes filled with the work of stars. What voices will we take into our liminal slumber? What patterns and pieces will break open the night mind’s path?”

In terms of atmosphere and execution, Night ReignArooj Aftab‘s fourth solo LP following her acclaimed 2021 release, Vulture Prince – is filled with dark, mysterious corners and an intoxicating blend of jazz and Aftab’s Pakistani roots. Born in Saudi Arabia to Pakistani parents, Aftab moved to Pakistan at ten and then to the United States at 19, attending the Berklee College of Music. This blend of global upbringing and traditional music education has affected the music Aftab makes and her ability to blend a variety of styles without ever seeming forced. Making these disparate styles seem like an inevitable combination – speaks volumes about her musical talent and prowess. In a 2021 Los Angeles Times interview, she said that her goal in making Vulture Prince was to “transcend boundaries”.

Night Reign comes off the heels of 2023’s Love in Exile, Aftab’s collaboration with jazz pianist Vijay Iyer and multi-instrumentalist Shahzad Ismaily, and Ayer’s jazz inspiration may have at least partially inspired this new release. “Saaqi”, one of two songs on Night Reign featuring the Urdu-language poetry of 18th-century Indian poet Mah Laqa Bai Chanda, actually features Ayer on piano, and it’s an airy, ethereal masterpiece of mood. But even in Ayer’s absence, jazz plays a vital role in the makeup of this refreshingly diverse collection of songs.

“Last Night (Reprise)”, for example, sees Arooj Aftab revisiting a track from Vulture Prince and offering a jazzier, more freewheeling take, aided in large part by Petros Klampanis’ irresistible, insistent upright bass line, Maeve Gilchrist’s spiky harp lines, Cautious Clay’s flute, and an unexpected Wurlitzer appearance by, of all people, Elvis Costello. “Na Gul” also enters jazz territory as an unmoored, structurally unusual piece, with piano, acoustic guitar, and harp forming the musical base while Aftab once again passionately interprets Mah Laqa Bai Chanda’s poetry as the music slowly builds in intensity and Nadje Noorduis’ flugelhorn repeats the song’s main melody in a beautifully understated way.

One of the most pleasant surprises on Night Reign is the cover of the jazz standard “Autumn Leaves”, which Aftab seems to approach as a challenge – interpreting a song that has been covered so many times before but offering a fresh, unique take. Anchored by raw, insistent percussion and Linda May Han Oh‘s low-key upright bass, this version takes the song to more exotic locales and brings a 1970s jazz-fusion feel with James Francies’ brief, bright Fender Rhodes solo.

Night Reign’s first two singles offer disparate but stylistically representative takes of the album. “Raat Ki Rani” is, according to Arooj Aftab, “about a person whose allure, magnetism, and charisma floats through a beautiful evening garden party”. Gilchrist’s harp complements an insistent pulse of percussion, Klampanis switching over to piano, and bits of keyboards and strings that offer up a wealth of sonic delights while still maintaining the Sade-like torch song feel that Aftab emotes.

“Whiskey”, one of a handful of songs Aftab sings in English, is a gorgeous, layered ballad about the end of a night as Aftab’s companion has been typically over-imbibing. “Your head gets heavy and rests on my shoulder,” she sings with a mix of annoyance and gentle resignation. “‘Cause you drink too much whiskey when you’re with me.” Even among jazz standards and songs based on 18th-century poets, Aftab can still inhabit a relatable universe: “We’ll fade into the night / On the weight of your perfume,” she sings. “I’m drunk, and you’re insane / Tell me how we will get home.”  

The guest spots on Night Reign – and there are several – always enhance the songs and never feel overcrowded. Moor Mother‘s appearance on the gloomy “Bolo Na” is accompanied by Ismaily’s thick bass lines and a funereal tempo. Her recitations are the perfect counterpoint to Aftab’s gentle crooning and move the song into new dimensions. The simple, almost droning musical backdrop on the closing track, “Zameen”, is courtesy of the musical collective Chocolate Genius, Inc. and offers healing, hope, and meditation to finish off Aftab’s new release that has taken its listeners on a wide-ranging night time ride.

Throughout the history of recorded music, there’s a long list of works that are best experienced at night, under the cover of stars: Miles DavisKind of Blue, Portishead‘s Dummy, Radiohead‘s Kid A. You can add Arooj Aftab’s beautiful Night Reign to the upper echelon of that list.

RATING 9 / 10