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Vijay Iyer & Wadada Leo Smith: A Cosmic Rhythm With Each Stroke

Mark Corroto By

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The expansion of the mind, or better yet, consciousness, can come from multiple approaches. Prayer, physical activity, hallucinogenic substances, and mathematics are but a few routes. All seem to distillate to one essence, that is quiet, the emptiness of silence. For prayer or meditation, the quiet is obvious. But also, great scientists and athletes tell us in the vacuum of space, problems are solved, and the game winning jump-shot is made in an almost slow-motion stillness.

That same quiet is the nucleus of this duo recording by pianist Vijay Iyer and trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith, commissioned by the Metropolitan Museum of Art's LiveArts for an exhibition dedicated to Indian modernist Nasreen Mohamedi. Like the artist's use of space, patterns, and repetition, Iyer and Smith create a suite of seven improvised movements titled "A Cosmic Rhythm With Each Stroke" which are bookended by a composition from each artist.

The two musicians have distinguished recordings with ECM, Iyer's solo Mutations (2014) and trio Break Stuff (2015) and Smith's Divine Love (1978) and Kulture Jazz (1993). Smith's origins in the Chicago AACM and Iyer's in the West Coast's Asian Improv scene make them kindred souls. Iyer performed in Smith's electro-acoustic Golden Quartet from 2005-2010. This recording fits nicely with Smith's previous duo efforts with John Lindberg, Celestial Weather (TUM Records, 2015), John Tilbury, Bishopsgate Concert (Treader, 2014), Louis Moholo-Moholo, Ancestors (TUM Records, 2012), and a 1986 session with Ed Blackwell, The Blue Mountain's Sun Drummer (Kabell, 2010)

The disc opens with six seconds of silence, before the pianist's "Passages" drifts in like a clement tide. Iyer's empathetic piano lifts the sound under Smith's unfurling notes, each building upon the piece's barely noticeable momentum. Their seven-part improvisation is the core here, with Iyer switching between piano, electric piano, and adding bits of minimal electronics. The opening electronic hum and buzz of "All Becomes Alive" fuels Smith's slurried overblown notes against the current. It is often the silences here that astonish. The reverberations of electric piano echo against Smith's trumpet on "Notes On The Water," creating fog which the trumpeter blows away. These improvisations grow organically, each a small musical illustration. "A Cold Fire" is dense with texture and color, while "A Divine Courage" is expressed with minimal lines and muted colors. Smith's "Marian Anderson," a piece dedicated to the singer and civil rights activist, closes the disc. The music is cloaked with a bittersweet sound of pleasure tinged in a sadness. A beautiful sadness.

Track Listing: Passage; A Cosmic Rhythm With Each Stroke: All Becomes Alive; The Empty Mind Receives; Labyrinths; A Divine Courage; Uncut Emeralds; A Cold Fire; Notes On Water; Marian Anderson.

Personnel: Wadada Leo Smith: trumpet; Vijay Iyer: piano, Fender Rhodes, electronics.

Title: A Cosmic Rhythm With Each Stroke | Year Released: 2016 | Record Label: ECM Records

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