Vijay Iyer/Wadada Leo Smith: a cosmic rhythm with each stroke (ECM 2486)


2486 X

a cosmic rhythm with each stroke

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
Nothing more
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.

Iyer Smith
(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.

Wadada Leo Smith & Bill Laswell: Akashic Meditation

Akashic Meditation

Soul-seeking trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith and sought soul, bassist Bill Laswell, recorded live at New York City’s The Stone on April 22, 2014. A metropolis unto themselves, built by a masonry of interlocking musicality.

In this spontaneous set, listeners may open their eyes, only to find themselves behind another’s closed. Laswell slows the dance of time to near-stillness, so that every contraction of every muscle may be studied. Smith’s entry comes from within rather than from without, portioning flesh on scales counterweighted with virtue. Consciousness on either side denies the illusion of consensus reality and offers a purely sound-based alternative in its place. The psycho-sphere of these spiraling prevarications acts as glue for a jagged infrastructure.

Laswell has a leviathan’s heart for this stuff. His bass flashes and writhes with intrigue, far more than the sum of its plastic, wood, and strings. And because the machinations of that instrument rotate on linguistic axes, a sense of communication is vital to understanding his improvisational cartography. It is at one moment a bodhisattva of desert suns, the next a dying gamelan courting the moon. It listens to its own heartbeat and tracks the decimation of rhythms.

Smith, for his part, treats the skin as a palimpsest of discovery. His breath, the written word to Laswell’s speech, resonates through a brass menagerie of travel. As distant as he is present, he is a nomad in search of the next melodic attachment.

Distortions in both look back with forward eyes as regularity subsumes, is subsumed, and touches off a limpid and final spark after an elliptical net catches Smith’s reborn self.

The Akashic meditation is not a conversation but a conversion. A reverse alchemy that turns gold into lead. Here you will find no towering, canonical monuments, but only ruins of such raw power that every crumbling edifice yields the scripture of change.

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Wadada Leo Smith: Kulture Jazz (ECM 1507)

Wadada Leo Smith
Kulture Jazz

Wadada Leo Smith trumpet, fluegelhorn, koto, mbira, harmonica, bamboo notch flute, percussion, vocal
Recorded October 1992, Hardstudios, Winterthur
Engineer: Martin Wieland
Produced by Steve Lake

To characterize Wadada Leo Smith as a genuinely musical soul would be a gross understatement. Having shunned the spotlight that might so easily have blinded him, he continues to draw thread after thread between the world’s many shadows and the sustaining fire within (if you haven’t heard his 4-hour magnum opus, Ten Freedom Summers, you don’t know what you’re missing). We have Manfred Eicher to thank for first bringing Smith to ECM among the company of Dwight Andrews, Bobby Naughton, Charlie Haden, Lester Bowie, and Kenny Wheeler on 1979’s Divine Love, and further Steve Lake for bringing the label’s touch a second time to this subtly profound solo meditation on the energies that make the world turn. Wrapped in the strains of “Don’t You Remember,” which depicts with mbira and voice a traveler’s view of atrocity and victory, we find ourselves swept in less than four minutes through a tide of earthen histories and cotton-scented tribulations. To express such depth with such minimal means speaks not only to the talents of Smith as a musician, but also to the inherent power of the individual to affect change at the galactic level. We feel this power in the visceral bite of his trumpet solos. The muted “Song Of Humanity (Kanto Pri Homaro),” to choose but one, speaks the language of those same celestial energies, climbing down ladders of starlight into the pitted chambers of our hearts, where the strains of a koto in “Mississippi Delta Sunrise (for Bobbie)” and “Seven Rings Of Light In The Hola Trinity” intimately skirt the edge of a bandwagon’s trail, popping heritage like candy. “Fire-Sticks, Chrysanthemums And Moonlight (for Harumi)” is the album’s central ceremony (one, if the reader will allow a comparison, in the vein of Keith Jarrett’s Spirits). It haunts coves turned red by ancestral blood, into which Smith dips a fluted brush. He spreads his aural calligraphy in the fire of dawn and begins to fashion from it a love letter to those who have given him courage and life: through the celebratory braid of trumpeted strands in “Louis Armstrong Counter-Pointing,” the forested song of “The Healer’s Voyage On The Sacred River (for Ayl Kwel Armah),” and the porous dronescape that is “The Kemet Omega Reigns (for Billie Holiday),” we come to know the spirit of a friend, lover, and acolyte. And in the unitary transmissions of “Love Supreme (for John Coltrane)” and “Uprising (for Jessie and Yvonne)” Smith shields an essential and unwavering flame.

Kulture Jazz is a body of dedication with two extroversions for every intro. Unafraid to marvel at the rawness of creation, Smith plays as one might write in a diary or sketch on newsprint, sanding the figurines of his past into a rounded family of novel ideas. An album of such sparseness may not appeal to everyone, but with such indelible spiritual truth suffused into every moment, how can we keep ourselves from adding our adoration to its melodious font?

Truth, crushed to the earth, shall rise again.

<< Kim Kashkashian: Lachrymae (ECM 1506 NS)
>> György Kurtág: Hommage à R.Sch. (ECM 1508 NS)

Wadada Leo Smith: Divine Love (ECM 1143)

ECM 1143

Wadada Leo Smith
Divine Love

Wadada Leo Smith trumpet, fluegelhorn, steel-o-phone, gongs, percussion
Dwight Andrews alto flute, bass clarinet , tenor saxophone, triangles, mbira
Bobby Naughton vibraharp, marimba, bells
Charlie Haden double-bass
Lester Bowie trumpet
Kenny Wheeler trumpet
Recorded September 1978 at Tonstudio Bauer, Ludwigsburg
Engineer: Martin Wieland
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Wadada Leo Smith’s Divine Love is one of ECM’s most tantalizing jewels, the result of many years ignoring the label’s advances. I can only speculate this was because the immediacy of his craft might have been adversely affected by the interventions of any svelte postproduction. Thankfully, and not surprisingly, Eicher and company gave this effort all the space it needed to breathe, for breath is precisely what this imaginative session is all about.

Since 1970, Smith has been utilizing two systems of musical production: a) rhythm-units, which balance every note produced with an equivalent unit of silence, and b) ahkreanvention, an amalgamated method of “scored improvisation.” The album’s two bookends exemplify the former, while the latter animates the single piece at their center. This structure gilds the recording with a cyclical feel that deepens with every listen. Drifting through the waves of mallet percussion (courtesy of Bobby Naughton) of the title track, each cry materializes as a vessel of indeterminate origin until we lose ourselves in the eddy of “Tastalun,” where muted trumpets (Lester Bowie and Kenny Wheeler join in here) streak the music’s inner language with deep gashes of spontaneous intent. With “Spirituals: The Language Of Love,” we return to where the album began, sailing forth into waters at once opaque and teeming with unseen light.

From left to right: Bobby Naughton, Wadada Leo Smith, Dwight Andrews
Stuttgart, West Germany, September 1978
(Photo by Fridel Pluff)

While Smith’s presence is felt throughout in his wavering horns and percussion, the alto flute of Dwight Andrews is for me the album’s soul. Smith’s pensive collaboration tries not to evoke beauty, but rather to find in the act of invocation an air of repose. Anyone expecting grooves and catchy tunes will find no foothold. This is a long confession spun from discomforting lucidity. In this trying melody called life, divine love is the truest note.

<< Richard Beirach: Elm (ECM 1142)
>> Terje Rypdal: Descendre (ECM 1144)