Vijay Iyer and Wadada Leo Smith – a cosmic rhythm with each stroke – ECM

by | May 25, 2016 | Jazz CD Reviews

A trumpet and piano duo project about movement, space and universality.

Vijay Iyer and Wadada Leo Smith – a cosmic rhythm with each stroke [TrackList follows] ECM 2486, 66:13 [3/25/16] *****:

(Wadada Leo Smith – trumpet; Vijay Iyer – piano, Fender Rhodes, electronics)

To appreciate the new album by keyboardist Vijay Iyer and trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith, the 66-minute a cosmic rhythm with each stroke, listeners need to go beyond the music. That’s because Smith and Iyer’s inspirations have benignly benefited the three lengthy pieces, including the 50-minute, seven-part, title track suite. The record’s lower-case name (also the title of the long-form suite) comes from a 1969 diary entry by Indian artist Nasreen Mohamedi (1937-1990).

Study the EYE
Observe some objects in Different light
A cosmic rhythm with
Each stroke
Sound and vibrations (study)
Movement and emptiness

Much of the material thus is a reaction to Mohamedi’s artwork, or as Iyer explains, he and Smith shared “a certain understanding, a certain set of governing ideas” after reading Mohamedi’s diary and studying her creative output. This kind of duality, a combined communication, isn’t accidental. Iyer and Smith previously performed in Smith’s Golden Quartet, from 2005 to 2010, and the two friends have known each other for nearly two decades. Smith and Iyer often established a sub-unit within the Golden Quartet, constructing spontaneous duo explorations. Eventually, that led to performing as a duo on stage, and this recording promptly ensued. The title track centerpiece was commissioned for a Mohamedi exhibition at a museum. It is bookended by Iyer’s “Passage” and Smith’s “Marian Anderson,” a tribute to the famous contralto singer.

Smith’s trumpet and Iyer’s piano (which he supplements with Fender Rhodes and occasional electronics) are vividly individual, but also, quoting Smith, “merge as a single wave or a single voice.” That precise partnership is evident throughout the long-form suite. The first part, “All becomes alive,” initializes with Smith’s meticulous trumpet notes, with Iyer’s subtle digital effects forming a backwash. Acoustic piano then enters, and gradually both trumpet and keyboards quietly but empathically coalesce. There’s an equal amount of affirmation during the sedate “The empty mind receives,” where Iyer focuses on the emotive qualities of the piano’s lower keys, while Smith offers higher, lingering and sometimes dissonant notes. There’s a faster and fluctuating characteristic which pervades “Labyrinths,” where the music becomes composite and prickly. The lengthiest section of the title suite—“A divine courage”—begins with barely noticeable electronic noise, like the low hum of an engine almost out of ear’s range. Smith and Iyer then create slow notes, no chords, which rise out of the dimness like light from a dark tunnel. Good speakers or headphones and no other exterior din are necessary to fully fathom the muted mastery of “A divine courage.”

There is a comparably soft setting for “Uncut emeralds,” where Iyer contributes brittle and high-pitched piano notes, akin to the tinkles of glass shards on a tabletop. Smith follows Iyer’s lead, also presenting some persistently high trumpet notes. The suite accelerates and wildly veers during “A cold fire,” where a free jazz foundation is embraced and affords a sense of a semi-controlled tilt, as if Smith and Iyer are holding forth despite the music wanting to spin outside of any management. The suite’s final track, “Notes on water,” finds Iyer utilizing his Fender Rhodes electric piano, which imparts a slightly soulful spirit. Iyer also succeeds in not conjuring up a jazz fusion context, instead using the Fender to attain a mostly meditative mannerism which accentuates Smith’s razor-sharp notes. Concentrating on the 50-minute “A cosmic rhythm with each stroke” is no small feat. The scarcely perceptible electronics, the discreet spaces in the movements, the spare trumpet and piano could easily filter into the background. But this is not music which is a backdrop. This is music which assuredly captures the surroundings.

Iyer’s opening composition, “Passage,” is spellbinding, a perfectly executed piano/trumpet blending where Smith and Iyer’s sensitivity and imagination unite intuitively. The closer, Smith’s “Marian Anderson,” honors the celebrated singer (1897-1993), who was also an important figure in the American civil rights struggle. “Marian Anderson” is poignant and stirring, both beautiful and beatific and a fitting conclusion to this evocative album.

TrackList: Passage; A cosmic rhythm with each stroke: All become alive, The empty mind receives, Labyrinths, A divine courage, Uncut emeralds, A cold fire, Notes on water; Marian Anderson.

—Doug Simpson

Related Reviews
Logo Pure Pleasure
Logo Crystal Records Sidebar 300 ms
Logo Jazz Detective Deep Digs Animated 01