Jazz CD Review: Vijay Iyer and Wadada Leo Smith — Exploring Cosmic Possibilities in Sound

Pianist Vijay Iyer and trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith produce music that is precise and quietly evocative, peaceful and gently probing.

A Cosmic Rhythm With Each Stroke, Vijay Iyer and Wadada Leo Smith. ECM 2486


By Michael Ullman

I first heard Wadada Leo Smith in the very late 1960s in Chicago, where he and other members of the newly formed Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians gave concerts assembled out of what seemed to be randomly assorted musicians at places such as the University of Chicago’s Mandel Hall. These performances was startling to this young, naive listener. At that point my idea of the avant-garde was dominated by two figures: the very recently deceased John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman. In his last years  Coltrane seemed to play and then to overplay, to pack such intense energy into every rift  that no one could match  it — and few perhaps would want to. Coleman provided an alternative. His peg-legged compositions seemed almost sing-song, their jig-jazzy rhythms defined by the happy tom-toms of Ed Blackwell. Coleman tunes were a combustible, disorderly amalgamation: half singable, half a rush towards some undefined end point, with Coleman eventually wandering off from the main theme, playing appealingly unrelated melodies.

The Chicago musicians were different, sometimes  theatrical (literally in the case of Joseph Jarman), always intense, sometimes funny. I have vivid memories of trumpeter Lester Bowie in his lab coat whapping a bass drum, and of Roscoe Mitchell with a contraption made of hub caps. (Bowie once grabbed a nearby broom and frantically swept around the feet of the audience before leaving the room.) Each musician choose at times to play a solo concert. Each also made use of a wide variety of instruments:  watching the Art Ensemble of Chicago unpack barrels of percussion instruments, New Yorker critic Whitney Balliett once quipped, should be considered the first piece of their concerts. Collectively and individually, these musicians were interested in  producing the broadest possible variety of sounds: bright saxophone phrases, of course, but also vague rustlings, grumbles, or rumblings made by thumping on gourds or hub cabs, interrupted (perhaps) by a piercing whistle or a few inexpertly rendered blasts on a harmonica. My first memories of Wadada Leo Smith are of a powerful trumpet player with a bright, flaring sound who seemed deeply interested in silences. He played a phrase and then would let it reverberate — as if he was waiting to see how that vibration resonated in (or with) the universe.

Photo: courtesy of ECM.

Vijay Iyer (l) and Wadada Leo Smith (r) in the studio. Photo: courtesy of ECM.

If my memory is trustworthy, Smith has remained a remarkably consistent musician. His brilliant, optimistic tone is intact and he always seems to be listening deeply as well as playing. Smith’s new series of duets with the remarkable pianist Vijay Iyer was an inevitability; among his many projects, Iyer was a member Smith’s Golden Quartet. In his notes for the album, the pianist explains what sometimes happened between them when they played: “In quartet performances, Wadada and I often became a unit within the unit generating spontaneous duo episodes as formal links. In the process, a space of possibility emerged that introduced me to other systems of music-making.”

A Cosmic Rhythm with Each Stroke is the flowering of that “space of possibility.” The album is made up of a seven-part suite of improvisations, framed by “Passage,” an opening piece by Iyer and “Marian Anderson,” a concluding composition from Smith. The music here is precise and quietly evocative, peaceful and gently probing. After a few moments of complete silence, Iyer’s “Passages” begins with the barely audible sound of pairs of single notes that tread carefully over an occasional chord struck from deep in the bass. Smith enters, at a whisper, with long tones. The repetitiveness of the rhythm is eventually broken up when Iyer moves onto what might be thought of as double time, but the watchful, carefully articulated mood is never dissipated.

The suite begins with a kind of fractured fanfare from Smith. He is joined by long, hollow tones generated electronically. The rest of this section takes place over the repetitions of a two-note phrase emanating from the bass. (Several numbers in this suite feature a sober background of electronic sounds.) Part two begins with Iyer again quietly laying out a vague path; Smith then joins him.

The suite is dedicated to and inspired by the Indian artist Nasreen Mohamedi, whose striking line drawings, most likely influenced by architectural sketches, are currently being displayed at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City (through June 5). The spontaneous improvisations recorded here were prepared for after the musicians’ discussed her art and philosophy. Their emphasis on a clear and delicate minimalism is indicated by the titles of individual pieces, such as “Uncut Emeralds” or “A Cold Fire.” The latter composition is the one threatening cut on the album — both musicians come off as agitated, even anxious. Elsewhere, as in “The Empty Mind Receives,” the listener is presumably the “empty mind” invited to receive the music. Iyer’s pacific playing  is matched and opposed by the yearning sounds of Smith’s trumpet in this suite of intelligent, musically engaging improvisations.

Note: On April 7 and 8 the Fromm Concerts at Harvard University will present “Creative Music Convergences,” a series of free shows in John Knowles Paine Concert Hall on the Harvard University campus. The lineup on Thursday features 7:30 p.m. performances by Wadada Leo Smith and Vijay Iyer and Nicole Mitchell with Tomeka Reid and Mike Reed. At 9 p.m. Okkyung Lee and the Steve Lehman Octet take the stage. Friday’s 7:30 p.m. concert will feature Craig Taborn and Smith with Ikue Mori. The 9 p.m. show includes Courtney Bryan and the Tyshawn Sorey Double Trio.

Michael Ullman studied classical clarinet and was educated at Harvard, the University of Chicago, and the U. of Michigan, from which he received a PhD in English. The author or co-author of two books on jazz, he has written on jazz and classical music for The Atlantic Monthly, The New Republic, High Fidelity, Stereophile, The Boston Phoenix, The Boston Globe, and other venues. His articles on Dickens, Joyce, Kipling, and others have appeared in academic journals. For over 20 years, he has written a bi-monthly jazz column for Fanfare Magazine, for which he also reviews classical music. At Tufts University, he teaches mostly modernist writers in the English Department and jazz and blues history in the Music Department. He plays piano badly.

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