Shahzad Ismaily goes solo at the Western Front

Shahzad Ismaily, multi-instrumentalist.

New York-based multi-instrumentalist Shahzad Ismaily will be performing at the Western Front on Feb. 26. Having recorded and toured with artists such as Laurie Anderson, Ben Frost and Colin Stetson, the acclaimed accompanist and band member sets out to bring a more intuitive, improvisational direction in his solo shows.

I will plan to have around me a variety of instruments so that as I sit in the centre of all of them, I can look out at the audience and feel a sense of my own body, and then make the choice that I want to make in the moment that it happens,” says Ismaily.

Gaining perspective

Over the last 20 years, Ismaily has been a member in various bands, and recorded for and performed with artists from all around the musical world. Ismaily says that because of these experiences, he has a new outlook on life through music.

“I feel like when I perform with others, I’m immediately gaining an alternate perspective of what is real because that person that I sit across and that I’m working with is 100 per cent choosing in every moment and micro-moment what is the correct expression of sound in terms of how they see it, how they see the world,” says Ismaily.

For Ismaily, the experience of performing with others can vary wildly from setting to setting. He says that some artists are much more strict in their musical vision while others, such as Ismaily’s close friend and contemporary folk singer-songwriter Sam Amidon, encourage a much more in-the-moment accompaniment from the instrumentalist.

Although the two friends have never officially been in the same band, the musical bond between them is as strong as ever, given their extensive musical history together.

“I don’t think that the form of band partnership [as opposed to] the form of an invitation to a recording session with an artist… leads consistently, in and of itself, to a [certain] way of doing things,” says Ismaily. “I could get asked by my friend Sam Amidon to go and track a song of his, and because Sam himself is a very free spirited musician and artist, he allows me in the studio with complete free reign to approach that song however I feel like.”

Going solo

Though Ismaily’s own show at Western Front takes place on the 26th, he’s set to perform alongside Amidon in his show the day prior. And although Amidon would more than likely be able to accompany Ismaily for his own show, Ismaily is set on creating his own musical space for the performance.

Having toured and recorded with countless other artists over the last 20 years, Ismaily says he has had no shortage of surreal and emotionally resonant musical moments. But for the artist who has spent most of his career performing with and for others, he has found that there’s a special experience to be found within his own performances in the few solo shows he has already had, in connecting not just with another artist, but also with the audience.

“There’s a kind of, comfort wouldn’t even be the right word, a kind of deep healing glow of happiness that starts to generate that gets started from that welcoming embrace,” says Ismaily. “Setting aside the up-and-down judgement of whether they like it or not, the ecstasy already happens simply from allowing yourself to say fully who you are and then to have that fully received by someone.”

Ismaily notes that conveniently, given the work he has already put in with artists across the industry, it’s probably safe to say he has his foot in the door to be able to perform on his own from time to time.

“I’m just gonna let things keep coming hopefully, but I do feel like I’d like to do more solo shows. And I think, because of the things that I’ve done so far in my life, that I probably have the luxury to email or call venues in New York once in a while,” says Ismaily. “If it’s like 6:30 on a Tuesday, I don’t really care, it’s really more about the habit of doing it.”

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