Vijay Iyer piano, Fender Rhodes, electronics
Wadada Leo Smith trumpet
Recorded October 2015 at Avatar Studios, New York
Engineer: James A. Farber
Assistant: Akihiro Nishimura
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: March 11, 2016
Labyrinths, lines among lines – A mesh
Difficult to destroy
Yet one must
Out of chaos, form – silence
–Nasreen Mohamedi, diary entry, 1968
That pianist Vijay Iyer looks up to Wadada Leo Smith as a “hero, friend, and teacher” is nowhere so beautifully obvious as on this, their first duo record. He recalls his five years spent with the trumpeter’s Golden Quartet, in which he and Smith “became a unit within the unit generating spontaneous duo episodes as formal links.” Said balance of spontaneity and form accurately describes an artistic process that adds as many layers as it peels away.
The seven-part a cosmic rhythm with each stroke came about in response to Indian artist Nasreen Mohamedi (1937-1990), whose diary yields every title therein. “All becomes alive” introduces electronic augury as spinal tap, while Smith’s castings reveal a divination that feels simultaneously digital and analog. There’s tension here, but it has no teeth to masticate Iyer’s block chords. Instead, it marvels at its own narrative unfolding, one word at a time. These dynamics fluctuate all the way to “Notes on water,” in which synthesized elements bring the suite to its origami conclusion. Along every crease in between—whether through the muted proclamations of “The empty mind receives,” the frenetic grammars of “Labyrinths” and “A cold fire,” or the ambient depths of “A divine courage”—we encounter a biographical fingerprint. The forensic tools required to piece these together into a coherent identity are as much drawn from the listeners as the performers.
(Photo credit: John Rogers)
Their investigation is bookended by two outlying compositions. Iyer’s “Passage” refuses to see either palette or canvas as flat surfaces, emphasizing instead their three-dimensionality and capacity for absorption. What begins as a delicate, John Cagean landscape morphs into a bolder ode to time and space. If Iyer’s pianism speaks in acrylics, then Smith’s trumpeting revels in the split tails of calligraphic brushstrokes, reading between their lines a language of metonymic potency. Smith’s “Marian Anderson,” dedicated to the contralto and civil rights activist of the same name, fits together broader temporal scaffolding upon a likeminded foundation. The end effect rolls itself into a seed of origins, ready to sprout at the slightest contact of our listening water.