Vijay Iyer / Wadada Leo Smith

A Cosmic Rhythm with Each Stroke

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In his liner notes to A Cosmic Rhythm with Each Stroke, pianist/electronicist Vijay Iyer writes that while working in trumpeter/composer Wadada Leo Smith's Golden Quartet/Quintet between 2005 and 2010, the pair often became "a unit within a unit." Evidenced by Tabligh in 2008 and Golden Quintet's half of the 2009 double-disc Spiritual Dimensions, this album (marking the trumpeter's first appearance on ECM in more than two decades) underscores that assertion via distillation. It is one of essences. It reveals the intricacies of music-making according to principles of instinct as well as close listening. Iyer's opening "Passage" is a surprise. The pianist's gently investigatory chords and thematic harmonics offer the hallmarks of a chamber piece. Smith illuminates them with expressive songlike statements, though more insistent staccato speech occurs near the end as Iyer builds to an implied crescendo. The majority of the album is claimed by the title work, a seven-part suite inspired by the drawings of the late Indian artist Nasreen Mohamedi. Its various sections offer a complete portrait of how deep and wide this duo can go. "All Become Alive" offers Smith's bleating, sometimes fragmented high notes. Iyer offers quiet, gently pulsing electronic backdrops, a simple keyboard bassline, and eventually a piano solo that alternately moves along a line that weds jazz balladry and lieder to modal improvisation before the trumpeter reenters to combine and sum. "Labyrinths" is more abstract, choppy, and kinetic. It is a quick-thinking conversation that offers breathtaking exchanges, not only back and forth, but through the moment. At the album's heart is "A Divine Courage." Introduced by the subtlest of electronic bass/drone pulses, Smith doesn't enter for nearly a full minute, giving the impression he is coming from silence. When he does, it's with halting yet fully formed lyric statements. (One briefly quotes Miles Davis from "Saeta" on Sketches of Spain.) As the intensity of the bass pulse slowly increases, Smith responds with expanded lyricism, played straight from the heart. Eventually Iyer's piano enters to frame it with droning middle-register chords and single notes. "A Cold Fire" commences with the pianist rumbling in the low register, alternately cascading notes and chords. Smith balances force and nuance in his playing, adding flow to the immense energy in their interplay. "Notes on Water" closes the suite with a moody ballad that could stand alone from it. Iyer's Rhodes piano shines darkly underneath the carefully articulated blues and angular shapes in Smith's playing. The trumpeter's "Marian Anderson" bookends the album in a resonant assertion of tribute. Iyer's care in responding highlights sometimes quizzical elucidations in the melody, moving the tune toward the unknown. It is the perfect consummation for A Cosmic Rhythm with Each Stroke. The instincts these players offer in these works display the duo's mutual desire for intimate communication and spiritual trust through the medium of sound. Their uncompromising movement toward them results in a shared musical mind that speaks in a distinctive, unique emotional language.

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