a cosmic rhythm with each stroke features Vijay Iyer and his “hero, friend and teacher”, Wadada Leo Smith. Vijay previously played extensively with Wadada in the trumpeter’s Golden Quartet. As he recalls in the liner notes here, “That group’s broad palette included ‘pure’ tones and distorted sound, motion and stillness, melody and noise. In quartet performances, Wadada and I often became a unit within the unit generating spontaneous duo episodes as formal links. In the process, a space of possibility emerged that introduced me to other systems of music-making. We have continued this approach in recent years…” A particularly inspiring collaboration at New York’s The Stone early in 2015 underlined the affinity of their sounds and concepts and made the documentation of the duo a priority. Hence this album, produced by Manfred Eicher at New York’s Avatar Studios in October 2015, which captures the improvisational magic of the duo, the expressive individuality of the participants and the ways in which they can – as Wadada Leo Smith says – “merge as a single wave, or a single voice.”
The centre-piece of the album is the spellbinding seven-part title suite, dedicated to Indian artist Nasreen Mohamedi (1937-1990). Wadada’s trumpet and Vijay’s piano (and occasional electronics) interact here with creative sensitivity to tone, texture and space. Though the musical form of the suite was largely shaped in the moment in the studio, the recording was preceded by studying and discussing Mohamedi’s work and reading her journals. As Iyer has explained it, in their musical responses to the artwork, he and Smith shared “a certain understanding, a certain set of governing ideas.”
In a major profile piece on Vijay Iyer in the February 1st, 2016 issue of The New Yorker, writer Alec Wilkinson notes that the suite “begins with Smith playing a bright rising phrase like a herald, that seems to announce a character’s taking the stage. What follows might be a two-figure play in which the exchanges involve mortality or impermanence or divinity. The musicians seem to trade remarks and sometimes talk along with one another […] Sometimes they appear to reflect on an exchange and sometimes they brood separately. The discourses are both cultivated and passionate.”
The “suite for Nasreen” is framed on the album by Iyer’s opening composition “Passage” and Smith’s concluding piece “Marian Anderson”, inspired by the great US contralto (1897-1993), an influential singer and an important figure in the civil rights movement. Smith’s colourful graphic score for the latter piece is itself an artwork.
Both musicians have received a great deal of international press attention in recent seasons. Wadada Leo Smith was voted Composer of the Year in 2015 by the Jazz Journalists Association, and in 2013 was a Pulitzer Prize finalist, in the wake of his landmark work Ten Freedom Summers. Vijay Iyer, meanwhile, received the annual prize of the German Record Critics (Preis der Deutschen Schapllattenkritik, Jahrespreis) – the latest of many awards – for his album Break Stuff (with Marcus Gilmore and Stephan Crump), and was voted Jazz Artist of the Year in the Down Beat Critics Poll. Iyer’s other releases on ECM are Mutations, with his music for piano, string quartet and electronics, and Radhe Radhe: Rites of Holi, a collaboration with the late filmmaker Prashant Bhargava, and the International Contemporary Ensemble. He also appears on the album Far Side as a member of Roscoe Mitchell’s Note Factory.
Vijay Iyer is currently artist-in-residence at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, and he and Wadada Leo Smith will be premiering a cosmic rhythm with each stroke there in March 2016, in the context of an exhibition dedicated to Nasreen Mohamedi’s art and writings.
Wadada Leo Smith first recorded for ECM in 1978 on Divine Love, with Lester Bowie, Kenny Wheeler, Charlie Haden, Dwight Andrews and Bobby Naughton. He also has an entirely solo album, Kulture Jazz, recorded in 1992. His association with ECM, however, goes back to the very beginning of the label’s history. (Theo Kotulla’s 1971 film See The Music – in which Marion Brown and Leo Smith outline their artistic philosophy and perform their music with Manfred Eicher, Thomas Stöwsand and Fred Braceful – was revived in 2012 for the exhibition ECM: A Cultural Archaeology at Munich’s Haus der Kunst.)
Smith belongs to the first generation of players to come out of Chicago’s hugely influential Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians and in 2015 participated in concerts, on both sides of the Atlantic, celebrating the AACM’s 50th anniversary.