Trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith and pianist Vijay Iyer are two of the world’s foremost presences in the jazz world today, and they have played together extensively in Smith’s Golden Quartet. They’ve also each recorded for ECM Records separately. Now, ECM is issuing their first duet recording, A Cosmic Rhythm With Each Stroke, due out March 25. (Get it from Amazon.)
A large portion of the album consists of the multi-part title track, “A Cosmic Rhythm with Each Stroke,” which was inspired by both the work and notebooks of Indian visual artist Nasreen Mohamedi. The correlation is not direct; her artwork acts not as a visual score, but rather an interpretive and impressionistic influence. The first section features Smith’s trumpet performing alone, only to be joined by Iyer’s electronics, and then, in turn, his piano as well. Both men possess immediately recognizable voices on their respective instruments. Wadada Leo Smith often sends out bold, tight clusters of notes. The flurries of notes are performed clearly and purposefully, and repeated listening reveals the architecture present in each fragment. Vijay Iyer performs with a great awareness of dynamics, his piano providing a harmonically rich bed that gives the sound its quiet density.
From its beginnings, the piece runs a gamut of approaches. At times, the two reach a level of delicacy approaching silence, while at other times, they enter a slightly louder zone, utilizing freer rhythms and tonalities. Smith’s trumpet sings plaintively and is often the most immediate presence to the casual listener. But Iyer never sinks completely into the background. His lines simultaneously show great sensitivity and independence. These two musicians demonstrate a wonderful telepathy, and exemplify the kind of egalitarian beauty possible in the duo format.
While the title piece certainly takes center stage on the album, it is bookended by two other pieces. The first, “Passage,” is credited to Iyer and is gentle; it seems to showcase the pianist, even though he plays quite softly through the majority of the song. He only gets louder when responding to Smith’s own soloing.
The album’s closing track is credited to Smith and is titled “Marian Anderson,” in honor of the groundbreaking 20th Century singer. This piece seems to emphasize Smith’s playing, with Iyer providing the most delicate and responsive undertones. When Smith drops out, Iyer plays beautiful fragments, but is comfortable leaving gaps of silence between the notes. The pair then close the song and the album together, fading into silence.
Often times duet pairings such as this feel like one-off occurrences, two big names brought together whose concomitant skills allow them to easily produce a quality session that is easy to market to the jazz public. Smith has done numerous duo albums, with players ranging from drummers Jack DeJohnette and Ed Blackwell to pianist John Tilbury and saxophonist Anthony Braxton. But given the history Vijay Iyer and Wadada Leo Smith share in the Golden Quartet, along with the depth and artistry present here, one can only hope these two will continue to work together, both as a duo and in a larger group context.
Watch an EPK for A Cosmic Rhythm With Each Stroke: