Vijay Iyer has described Wadada Leo Smith, an original member of Chicago’s AACM and a man 30 years his senior, as a “hero, friend and teacher”. And if I tend to associate Iyer more with Steve Coleman, in whose groups the pianist played in the late 90s, and whose music is closer in spirit to the urban-inflected jazz modernism of Iyer’s own last album, the excellent Break Stuff (ECM, 2015), he was just as vital in Smith’s groups ten years on.
It was Iyer, after all, who replaced Anthony Davis in Smith’s Golden Quartet, playing piano, Fender Rhodes and synthesizer on their standout album, Tabligh, in 2008. At any rate, a cosmic rhythm with each stroke (ECM)—the first level collaboration between Smith and Iyer—sits nicely alongside both Iyer’s ECM debut, Mutations (2014), a suite for piano with electronics and string quartet, and Smith’s solo ECM album Kulture Jazz (1993).
If there’s a complaint here, it’s that a cosmic rhythm with each stroke is more conservative than anyone previously turned on by either Iyer’s dynamic, analytical modern jazz or Smith’s visionary recordings for Tzadik might reasonably expect. But where Mutations was hamstrung by conservatism, a cosmic rhythm is much more vibrant and assured.
The bulk of the set is given over to a co-composed suite dedicated to Nasreen Mohamedi (1937-1990), the Indian artist whose imagery of rhythmic abstraction graces the cover. The suite was commissioned to complement an exhibition of Mohamedi’s art and writings at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, and was premiered there in March 2016, following recording sessions for this album that were overseen by producer Manfred Eicher.
Two other pieces frame the suite. The album opens with Iyer’s “Passage”, a gracefully lyrical, mid tempo piece that showcases both players unadorned and at their least affected. Smith plays with a pinched but clarion sound and Iyer is remarkably self possessed, excepting only a late surge of speed and intensity, in the style of Lubomyr Melnyk.
And at the other end of the album, Smith’s “Marian Anderson” is an elegiac piece that takes its name from the Afro-American classical contralto (1897-1993), whose songbook embraced both Schubert and spirituals. It’s slow paced, even sombre, but the piano part is quietly dramatic, highlighting the checked emotion in Smith’s incisive phrasing. In an extended solo interlude, Iyer suggests the brittle sensitivities of the classical tradition to which Marian Anderson bought spiritually-infused warmth.
Smith introduces “All Becomes Alive”, the first part of the title suite, with thin, piercing notes and tightly pursed flurries that remind me of Don Cherry’s playing on the first Codona album. Beneath him, Iyer threads an attenuated skein of electronic sound and a staccato bass pulse, then plays choppy phrases off that bass note as Smith shapes bold phrases reminiscent of mid-period Miles Davis. The trumpeter’s muted sound on “The Empty Mind Receives”, by contrast, invokes the edgy, lamenting tone that Davis adopted earlier, on Sketches of Spain.
It’s wrong to paint Smith as Davis’ shade though. The boldness of his sound shapes on “Labyrinths”, and the way his phraseology lissomely adapts, both to the nervier impulses of Iyer’s playing, and to the track’s serpentine succession of moods, is uniquely authoritative.
Iyer’s electronics are beautifully minimal, but they also act as orchestration. On “a Divine Courage” they provide ballast as an undertow to the intimacy of the opening duet, little more than a faint tympanic rumble at first, but taking on the characteristics of a contrabass pulse as Smith shapes a succession of beautifully concise phrases.
And these electronic touches often have a tactile quality, contrasting nicely with the plink and chink of keyboard ivories, as heard in crystalline droplets at the outset of the high-strung “Uncut Emeralds”. Here the duo hold each other in tension, both playing spare phrases that glint off a central well of silence but maintaining a finely judged distance. “A Cold Fire” is more volatile, Iyer’s previously in-check impulses suddenly spilling out in a scutter of effervescence.
Iyer switches to Fender Rhodes for the suite-concluding “Notes on Water”, casting the shimmering, elliptical translucence of the organ’s signature sound as luminaria behind Smith’s discursive and intensely emotive soloing.
This is a fine, quietly captivating album. The players are just a tad too mutually respectful, perhaps, to engender any real soul fire. But a cosmic rhythm… was never meant to be combustible, but rather a merger of two distinctive personalities, their processes and aesthetic values, in the spirit of its dedicatee; and they pull that off nicely.
Vijay Iyer piano, Fender Rhodes, electronics; Wadada Leo Smith trumpet.