Vijay Iyer and Wadada Leo Smith ‘A Cosmic Rhythm With Each Stroke’ (ECM) 4/5

vijay-iyer-wadada-leo-smithTrumpet and piano duos are rare on the ground and this particular collaboration is even more curious because it groups together musicians from vastly different backgrounds and even different centuries. Wadada Leo Smith was one of the post-Coltrane generation that emerged in the late-1960s when the avant-garde was trying to figure out where they went next after the passing of the titan tenorist. Smith was an integral part of the seminal recording by the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), ‘Three compositions of jazz’ that surfaced from the underground Chicago jazz scene. His association with ECM, however, dates from a decade later when he recorded with Lester Bowie on the 1978 album, ‘Divine Love’. His first solo album for the label fast forwards to 1992 with ‘Kulture Jazz’.
Vijay Iyer has rightly gained a reputation as one of the leading pianists of his generation and very much a child of the twenty-first century, inter-weaving acoustic and electronic sounds, and recording in a variety of settings. Most recently for ECM he has recorded with strings and trio. This first recorded collaboration with Smith has as its centrepiece a seven-part suite that is dedicated to the Indian artist Nasreen Mohamedi who passed away in 1990 at the age of sixty-three. Interestingly, the music comes across like a cross between solo Miles Davis circa 1965 and a pianist with avant-garde leanings. Parallels with Miles are at their most obvious and convincing on Part two of the suite, ‘All becomes alive’, with Smith blowing an impassioned and at times frenetic solo while there are some lovely meanderings from Iyer. This is equally the second longest number at just over nine minutes. Elsewhere, pieces such as ‘Labyrinth’ are much freer in character and Iyer sounds as though he has been influenced by Cecil Taylor. Trumpet comes to the fore on Part four, ‘A divine courage’, which is a kind of minimalist ballad with the subtle use of electronics by Iyer including a bass-like synthesizer line while the sheer beauty of Smith’s clear tone makes for a thrilling contrast. Dissonant piano greets the listener on Part five, ‘Uncut emeralds’, and on this uptempo piece Smith really opens up on trumpet. A final piece, ‘Marian Anderson’. is a heartfelt tribute to the singer and prominent civil rights activist, Marian Anderson. Not easy listening by any means and far more geared towards the melodic end of free jazz than anything remotely spiritual. That said. the pairing does work and hearing a trumpet in this pared down environment is a joy to behold.

Tim Stenhouse