Vijay Iyer & Mike Ladd: Holding It Down: The Veterans’ Dreams Project

Pianist Vijay Iyer’s third collaboration with hip-hop artist Mike Ladd started in 2009, when they began interviewing post-9/11 military veterans about their dreams. “Everyone dreams,” the duo explains in album notes, “but PTSD nightmares and stress dreams are often exactly what separate the veteran from the civilian. If so, then we can try to bridge that divide by listening, at least, to what those dreams contain.”

Two veterans, poet Maurice Decaul (who served a year in Iraq as a Marine) and Lynn Hill (a six-year Air Force veteran who spent two years piloting drones over Iraq and Afghanistan from a base in Las Vegas), contributed lyrics and vocals to the project, which premiered at the Harlem Stage Gatehouse last year. Iyer composed most of the music, Ladd turned seven other veterans’ dreams into lyrics, and the cast was completed by Pamela Z and Guillermo E. Brown on vocals, Liberty Ellman on guitar, Okkyung Lee on cello and Kassa Overall on drums.

Taking that personnel into the studio, the resultant 17 tracks are impassioned and haunting. Iyer makes the music serve the words, searing and surreal and exploring worlds pop culture generally leaves ignored. Soloing is sparse: Iyer finally lets himself stretch out some on “Patton,” “Shush” and “Requiem for an Insomniac,” and Ellman gets some licks in on “Costume” and “Tormented Star of Morning,” the latter also featuring Brown’s soulful singing of Decaul’s lyrics. For the most part, though, the instruments are there for ambience: Lee’s bowing on “Derelict Poetry” evokes the Middle East, and Iyer’s Fender Rhodes chimes alongside Lee’s sweetly elegiac cello on “Name.” Several tracks-like “Capacity,” “There Is a Man Slouching in the Stairway” and “Dreams in Color”-share a minimalist feel, dreamlike with a hint of menace. Altogether, Holding It Down is a genre-blurring and affecting look at an important topic.