Sunday, April 24, 2016

CD Review: Vijay Iyer & Wadada Leo Smith - a cosmic rhythm with each stroke

Vijay Iyer & Wadada Leo Smith
a cosmic rhythm with each stroke

Upon considering just a few aspect of Wadada Leo Smith's career - pre-AACM recordings with Anthony Braxton, the work of his Creative Orchestra for Moers Music and even his more recent works like The Great Lakes Suites - one project seemed like something of an aberration: Yo Miles, a band that pays tribute to Miles Davis' electric period. As a trumpeter who has gone to great lengths to create his own singular voice on the instrument, it seems like a surprise that he might take the time to look back.

But hearing this album offers a reminder of the connection between the two trumpeters. Davis could always exude a high level of lyricism from a select group of notes. Likewise, Smith is not a busy trumpeter. He likes his long tones, and he likes bending and squeezing them for all they're worth. When he does, they might not be quite as delicate as the Prince of Darkness, but they have a similar dramatic impact. This album presents many opportunities to get a greater understanding of Smith's sound.

Smith and pianist Vijay Iyer have a two-decade history together, which includes five years when they played together in Smith's Golden Quartet (click here for a review of an album). This album centers on its title track, a seven-part suite inspired by the late Indian artist Nasreen Mohamedi. Each section is named for a phrase taken from Mohamedi's diary ("All becomes alive," "The empty mind receives," among them). The music has a loose quality to it, spontaneous but not completely improvised. Some sections begin starkly while others begin like a free wheeling cat-and-mouse chase. Smith emits squirts or wails. Iyer begins with low rumbles on one track and upper register shimmers on another. One piece seems to begin with nearly a minute of absolute silence. Crank up the volume, though, and the sub-woofer sound of Iyer's electronics will be detected.

Therein lies the power of a cosmic rhythm with each stroke. There are moments of beauty to it, like the blend of Iyer's high end cascades and Smith's muted trumpet on "Uncut emeralds." The intervals that Smith takes on "Notes on water," one of several tracks that feature Iyer on Fender Rhodes, sound equally as beguiling in their frankness. This is headphone (or earbud, to be modern) music, where deep listening moves beyond the spare instrumentation that might be felt in a casual listen.

A piece by Iyer and one by Smith, respectively, precede and follow the suite. "Passage" opens the album with a rolling steady tempo from the pianist and long, passionate tones from his accomplice. "Marian Anderson" honors the late operatic contralto/civil rights activist with a warm salute.

These two are coming to town for the Pittsburgh JazzLive International festival and guess who can hardly wait.

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