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Holding It Down: The Veterans’ Dreams Project

by Jason Victor Serinus
Sunday Feb 23, 2014
Holding It Down: The Veterans’ Dreams Project

Sometimes an album gets passed up simply because it's impossible to pigeonhole. Such is the case with the deeply communicative music and poetry on "Holding It Down: The Veterans' Dreams Project" (PI Recordings). The third joint-undertaking of jazz pianist/composer Vijay Iyer and Australian poet-producer-performer Mike Ladd, the recording is a result of a three-year collaboration with veterans of color from the wars in Iran and Afghanistan that culminated in world premiere performances at the Harlem Stage Gatehouse in September 2012.

If "Holding It Down: The Veterans' Dreams Project" doesn't sound like a bowl of cherries, it isn't. War is hell, and those who manage to return from these conflicts often carry within them barely managed memories that surface as PTSD nightmares and shell-shocked dreams. Iyer and Ladd's goal is to attempt to bridge the divide between civilians and veterans - specifically soldiers of color, who have a disproportionate presence in the armed forces - by enabling us to hear what post-9/11 veterans' dreams tell us about ourselves, each other, and by extension, the system that creates these wars.

At the root of the project are veterans' poems, experiences, and dreams. One major contributor is Maurice Decaul, a poet who served with the Marines in Iraq in 2003. Decaul provides lyrics to six of the tracks and lead vocals to four of them. Three more marriages of lyrics and vocals come from Lynn Hill, whose six-year stint in the Air Force included two years piloting drones over Iraq and Afghanistan from a console in Las Vegas. The remainder of the lyrics and lead vocals are from Ladd, who proves himself an acute listener and conveyer of raw emotions.

This is art music at its finest. Sixteen of the compositions are by Iyer, the UC Berkeley-educated 2013 MacArthur Genius Fellowship recipient and recent addition to the Harvard faculty who won five awards in the 2012 Down Beat International Critics Poll, four in the JazzTimes extended critics poll, two years' worth of Pianist of the Year Awards from the Jazz Journalists Association, and Germany's 2013 ECHO Award. The last and final track is by Bay Area-based performing artist Pamela Z, whose very different and immensely intriguing voice also surfaces via lead and background vocals and some very canny live processing. Instrumentation includes Iyer's Fender Rhodes, programming and live electronics; Ladd's analog synthesizer; and additional vocals, guitar, cello, and drums from Guillermo E. Brown, Liberty Ellman, Okkyung Lee, and Kassa Overall.

While it's easy to imagine the music's ballistic and nightmarish effects, literalism is far less common than you might imagine. In truth, none of the music is common; each response is unique, brilliantly conceived, and totally apt for the words and feelings at hand. Those eager for art that speaks truth need not hesitate.

"Holding It Down: The Veterans' Dreams Project"
by Vijay Iyer & Mike Ladd

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