Vijay Iyer & Wadada Leo Smith, A Cosmic Rhythm with Each Stroke
The heart of the album is a 52-minute, largely improvised suite (which provides the CD's title), inspired by the writings, drawings, and photography of the late Indian visual artist Nasreen Mohamedi, whose retrospective at the opening of The Met Breuer museum in New York coincided not only with the release of this album but also with Iyer's weeklong residency at the Breuer, where he played with several ensembles, including an evening with Smith.
Mohamedi's work (which I'd never seen until this show) is minimalist, consisting of ultra-thin lines and angles, reminiscent of Agnes Martin or Sol LeWitt, but shimmering with passion in ways that I can't explain. In other words, Iyer and Smith captured her well.
The album opens with an Iyer composition, "Passage," in which he delicately ekes out variations on scales, encased in glowing harmonies and blue notes, while Smith blows wide open tones, some sputtering, some graceful, forming melodies out of blank space (yes, all musicians form melodies out of blank space, but he makes the process seem almost magical). And after the suite (in which Iyer switches back and forth from piano to Fender Rhodes and various droning electronics), the album closes with a mournful but monumental tribute to Marian Anderson composed by Smith.
Iyer and Smith are both musical systematizers, Smith a pioneer from the 1960s with the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (and, in that realm, a frequent collaborator with Anthony Braxton, Henry Threadgill, Anthony Davis, Jack DeJohnette, among others), who devised his own method of musical notation, which, I must confess, I don't quite understand, except that it allows broader concepts of rhythm, time, and space. Iyer, as readers of this blog know, is one of the top jazz pianists (as well as a student of advanced physics and math), whose works in the past few years have evolved from intricate, intriguing, and occasionally riveting to all that and something infused with beauty, wit, soul and swing. Iyer played in Smith's Golden Quartet a decade ago but very much as a sideman. Here they're collaborators, and the fit is tight and satisfying.