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Vijay Iyer/Wadada Leo Smith: a cosmic rhythm with each stroke

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a cosmic rhythm with each stroke (ECM)

This certainly isn’t the first time Vijay Iyer and Wadada Leo Smith have worked together-their partnership in Smith’s Golden Quartet goes back years-but it is their first duo recording, and an unusual one too. Its centerpiece is the seven-part title suite, which was inspired by the work of Indian abstract artist Nasreen Mohamedi (1937-1990) and received its live premiere at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art during an historic exhibition of her work. Iyer’s brooding “Passage” starts the album and Smith’s “Marian Anderson” ends it with an air of wounded nobility, but “a cosmic rhythm with each stroke” is clearly the main event.

Underrecognized and barely exhibited during her lifetime, Mohamedi has garnered attention in recent years for her signature use of monochromatic but highly textural grids and lines, mostly crafted using graphite and ink on paper. Iyer and Smith do a fine job of evoking the sense of space and asymmetry in her drawings. Smith explores the harmonic range of his trumpet, coaxing out overtones like a Tuvan throat singer, while Iyer creates rolling sustain-pedal clouds with his acoustic piano, adding occasional doom-laden Rhodes interpolations and distant, eerie electronic loops.

Taken as pure mood painting, the suite works well-and sounds superb, in the typical chillingly gorgeous Manfred Eicher style. But as a musical composition it’s less satisfying, mainly because it fails to engage any organs other than the brain. The dominant feeling is one of drift; moments where the players seem to have arrived at something concrete are rare. Perhaps the black-and-white nature of Mohamedi’s work hemmed in their creativity too much. In any case, a cosmic rhythm… is a worthy achievement, just not of the sort that most would choose to put on for pleasure.

Originally Published