A Cosmic Rhythm With Each Stroke features Vijay Iyer and his “hero, friend and teacher”, Wadada Leo Smith. Vijay previously played extensively with Wadada in the trumpeter’s Golden Quartet. As he recalls in the liner notes here, “That group’s broad palette included ‘pure’ tones and distorted sound, motion and stillness, melody and noise. 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. We have continued this approach in recent years…” A particularly inspiring collaboration at New York’s The Stone early in 2015 underlined the affinity of their sounds and concepts and made the documentation of the duo a priority. Hence this album, produced by Manfred Eicher at New York’s Avatar Studios in October 2015, which captures the improvisational magic of the duo, the expressive individuality of the participants and the ways in which they can – as Wadada Leo Smith says – “merge as a single wave, or a single voice.”
photo: Gulnara Khamatova
The centerpiece of the album is the spellbinding seven-part title suite, dedicated to Indian artist Nasreen Mohamedi (1937-1990). Wadada’s trumpet and Vijay’s piano (and occasional electronics) interact here with creative sensitivity to tone, texture and space. Though the musical form of the suite was largely shaped in the moment in the studio, the recording was preceded by studying and discussing Mohamedi’s work and reading her journals. As Iyer has explained it, in their musical responses to the artwork, he and Smith shared “a certain understanding, a certain set of governing ideas.”
photo: Gulnara Khamatova
In a major profile piece on Vijay Iyer in the February 1st 2016 issue of The New Yorker, writer Alec Wilkinson notes that the suite “begins with Smith playing a bright, rising phrase like a herald, that seems to announce a character’s taking the stage. What follows might be a two-figure play in which the exchanges involve mortality or impermanence or divinity. The musicians seem to trade remarks and sometimes talk along with one another […] Sometimes they appear to reflect on an exchange and sometimes they brood separately. The discourses are both cultivated and passionate.”
The “suite for Nasreen” is framed on the album by Iyer’s opening composition “Passage” and Smith’s concluding piece “Marian Anderson,” inspired by the great US contralto (1897-1993), an influential singer and an important figure in the civil rights movement. Smith’s colorful graphic score for the latter piece is itself an artwork.
Both musicians have received a great deal of international press attention in recent seasons. A 2013 Pulitzer finalist, Smith was the Jazz Journalist Association’s 2013 Musician of the Year and Trumpeter of the Year. In 2014 DownBeat named him “One of the 80 Coolest Things in Jazz Today,” citing his “magisterial instrumental voice, his inspirational leadership, and his command of classical, jazz and blues forms to remind us of what’s gone down and what’s still happening.” His landmark 2012 civil rights opus Ten Freedom Summers was called “A staggering achievement… It merits comparison to Coltrane’s A Love Supreme in sobriety and reach,” (Francis Davis, Rhapsody Jazz Critics Poll). The Financial Times called it “the veteran trumpeter’s defining statement,” the Wall Street Journal noted that it is “as striking a display of his expansive vision and his vitality,” and the BBC simply called it “his masterpiece.” His 2014 album, The Great Lakes Suites, featuring Smith with Henry Threadgill, John Lindberg and Jack DeJohnette, earned broad critical acclaim including second place in NPR Music’s 2014 Jazz Critics Poll.
Vijay Iyer, meanwhile, received the annual prize of the German Record Critics (Preis der Deutschen Schapllattenkritik, Jahrespreis) – the latest of many awards – for his album Break Stuff (with Stephan Crump and Marcus Gilmore), and was voted Jazz Artist of the Year in the DownBeat Critics Poll. Iyer’s other releases on ECM are Mutations, with his music for piano, string quartet and electronics, and Radhe Radhe: Rites of Holi, a collaboration with the late filmmaker Prashant Bhargava, and the International Contemporary Ensemble. He also appears on the album Far Side as a member of Roscoe Mitchell’s Note Factory.
Vijay Iyer is currently artist-in-residence at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, and he and Wadada Leo Smith will be premiering A Cosmic Rhythm With Each Stroke there in March 2016, in the context of an exhibition dedicated to Nasreen Mohamedi’s art and writings.
Smith’s first recorded for ECM in 1978 on Divine Love, with Lester Bowie, Kenny Wheeler, Charlie Haden, Dwight Andrews and Bobby Naughton. He also has an entirely solo album, Kulture Jazz, recorded in 1992. His association with ECM, however, goes back to the very beginning of the label’s history. (Theo Kotulla’s 1971 film See The Music –in which Marion Brown and Leo Smith outline their artistic philosophy and perform their music with Manfred Eicher, Thomas Stöwsand and Fred Braceful – was revived in 2012 for the exhibition ECM: A Cultural Archaeology at Munich’s Haus der Kunst.)
Smith belongs to the first generation of players to come out of Chicago’s hugely influential Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) which celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2015 with concerts on both sides of the Atlantic.
“Amid a riot of offbeat offerings at the Big Ears Festival, in Knoxville, Tennessee, I was mesmerized most by the lonely meanderings of the trumpeter-composer Wadada Leo Smith and the pianist-composer Vijay Iyer. A few days later, making a five-hour drive from Los Angeles to Death Valley, I listened five times in a row to Smith and Iyer’s album “A Cosmic Rhythm with Each Stroke,” the music nearly as vast as the landscape around me. On the way back, I listened five times again”. – The New Yorker (Alex Ross) December 2016
“Album titles don’t get much deeper than this, and the music lives up to it…the results are haunting, meditative and transportive in a work that draws from abstract Indian artist Nasreen Mohamedi and reaches for the stars.” LA Times (Chris Barton) March 2016
“Wadada Leo Smith is on a roll…Now comes an even more architecturally masterful duet album with keyboardist Vijay Iyer…If you want to hear two hyperaware musicians respond to each other in real time, this soundscape has your name on it.” Downbeat (Paul de Barros)
“No less riveting was a duo performance by the brilliant young pianist-composer Vijay Iyer and the veteran trumpeter-composer Wadada Leo Smith. They recently recorded A Cosmic Rhythm with Each Stroke, an album for the ECM label, and their collaboration is sparse, pensive, and daringly static. Smith presents a fragment of chiselled melody, like a pillar of a building that has otherwise fallen to ruin. Iyer answers with a misty dissonance or a ghostly filigree pattern. They create an illusion of vast space in which two solitary paths intersect. At one extraordinary moment, Smith began climbing up the steps of the major scale, as if he had found a stairway to the light; but then he let his tone crack, reverted to halting chromatic steps, and fell silent.” -The New Yorker (Alex Ross) April 2016